Felt Ones Living Large After Fuss


Is it sheer coincidence or revenge of the “Teletubbies”?

Has “Tinky Winky Comes Out of the Closet,” televangelist Jerry Falwell’s National Liberty Journal’s attack in February on the big purple fellow, drawn more viewers to the PBS show? Or has the toddler-preschooler set for whom the program originally was intended, and their older siblings and parents, merely heard so much about this gang of four sugary-sweet techno-babies with TV screen-like bellies that they must tune in too? So is it the fuss or the buzz that’s driving ratings?

Consider that on KCET-TV, the British-born series, which came to PBS in April 1998, had an average rating of 2 in both January and February, meaning it was seen in roughly 2 million homes. In March the average rating shot up to 2.7, a jump of 35%. Indeed, in L.A. on March 30, “Teletubbies” beat every program in its weekday slot at 11:30 a.m. with a 4.5 rating and a 16% share of audience, coming in first again April 6 with a 4.4% rating and a 14% share.

“I know you’re probably thinking we’re attributing this to the attention the series has gotten,” said KCET spokeswoman Laurel Lambert, “but there’s no correlation we can prove. Basically the series has been growing in popularity ever since it started. It may be coincidence that it took this 35% increase.”


PBS, meanwhile, said it was too soon to tell. While national ratings went up from 2.2 in January to 2.3 in February, figures were not available for March. John Fuller, director of research, said that at the time they looked at the overnights for the major national markets, “We didn’t see any changes, [but] in fact, the pattern of ‘Teletubbies’ has been growing.”

In a “Parents Alert,” Falwell’s Liberty Journal opined about Tinky Winky: “The character, whose voice is obviously that of a boy, has been found carrying a red purse in many episodes, and has become a favorite character among gay groups worldwide. Now, further evidence that the creators of the series intend for Tinky Winky to be a gay role model have surfaced. He is purple--the gay-pride color; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle--the gay-pride symbol.”

In response, PBS spokesman Harry Forbes, said: “There was absolutely no intention on the part of the creators to make Tinky Winky gay. The red purse? Children at this age group attach to a variety of household toys and the purse is somewhat akin to Linus’ blanket. It’s like a security thing.”

Kathryn Montgomery, president of the Center for Media Education, a nonprofit public interest group in Washington, and Diane Huss Green, editor-in-chief of the Parents Choice Foundation, a nonprofit consumer guide to children’s media and toys, derided the Liberty Journal’s comments. “In days of pretty terrible news--Monica and the president and the lying--it made everybody laugh,” Green noted.

And they doubt that the Tinky Winky controversy alone would drive ratings for a children’s series. They have other issues with “Teletubbies.” “I knew the first time I saw this kids were going to take to it,” Green said. “It’s repetitious, it’s cheerful music, it has child appeal. So does candy, so does ice cream. But the part that makes me unhappy, it takes this [TV] box and makes it a part of their bodies. It makes them more machines than human beings.”

Montgomery, whose soon-to-be 6-year-old daughter occasionally watches the series, considers it “benign” but questions whether it’s “truly beneficial to young children. I have always had issues with marketing [ancillary] products so aggressively to very young children. The series seems to have positive values, and certainly there is no violence, which is terrific, [but] it’s clear to me when [my daughter] watches the show she sort of regresses and starts talking baby talk. ‘La-la lee-lee.’ ”


At the nonprofit Family Research Council in Washington, Robert Knight, senior director of cultural studies, is certain that the curiosity factor in the short-term drove ratings upward. “But I think the major [issue] is the vilification of Jerry Falwell, because he only brought to light what had been said many times in gay publications, the Washington Post, and admissions by the show’s [producers] . . . Kids cannot discern, so they are planting these gender-bending messages.”

Among other citations, Knight pointed to a report in the April 17, 1998, issue of the Washington Blade, a gay and lesbian newspaper. It quoted Kenn Viselman, president of itsy bitsy Entertainment, which produces “Teletubbies,” as telling Entertainment Weekly that “the idea is to break down stereotypes.” (Viselman was further quoted as saying that there isn’t a boy on the planet who hasn’t picked up grandma’s purse, but it doesn’t mean he’ll grow up to be an interior decorator.)

Knight, whose 12-year-old daughter also has watched “Teletubbies,” elaborated on what he considers “gender bending” fare:

“Look at the symbols on the top of their heads. Jerry Falwell didn’t hallucinate that one of the boy Teletubbies has a phallic symbol--Dipsy, that’s the green one. Just a straight phallic object on the top of his head. And then the female Teletubby, Po, has a circle. She’s the red one. And then there’s Laa-Laa, female, she’s yellow, and she has a combination of the two. It looks like the phallic symbol is twisted through or next to the circle. Maybe it’s the bisexuality, I don’t know.”

Meanwhile the May issue of Brill’s Content says that Falwell was “unfairly” slammed for “outing” Tinky Winky. “At least a dozen media outlets had dubbed the character ‘gay’ months before NLJ even mentioned the critter.” It noted that the Washington Post, for example, pronounced Ellen DeGeneres and Anne Heche “Out” and Tinky Winky “In” as the new gay icon.

PBS’ Forbes called the Post’s and other such comments “tongue-in-cheek.”

In Atlanta, a spokeswoman for Falwell said he is not doing any more interviews on the Teletubbymatter.