Barney backlash

(what is right with the Public Broadcasting Service
children's television program 'Barney and Friends)

LAST YEAR I got a call from a reporter for a large liberal newspaper (large . ....liberal ....newspaper--am I being redundant?). I'd written about public television, and he wanted help with sources.

"I'm doing a story about Barney," he said. "You know about Barney?"

I did, since I have a television and a three-year-old son, and in America today a marriage of the two leads, inevitably, to Barney, who is (for those of you with neither TV nor kid) a large reddish-purple dinosaur and host of a public-television kids' show called Barney and Friends.

"My daughters addicted to him," the reporter said. I knew what he meant. I said that maybe the show transmits secret messages at a frequency only children can hear, like dog whistles, which is why it rivets kids and perplexes everyone else.

"Exactly!" he said, with some heat. I assume he understood that I wasn't serious. But I had tripped a wire, and he went on darkly to outline the expose he planned to write. He had heard that Barney and Friends was produced in . . . Texas . . . by Christians ... and here it was on public television desecrating the airwaves hallowed by Sesame Street.

When I didn't gag he seemed disappointed, and the conversation ended. I don't know what became of his story, and I still don't know whether Barney is produced by Christians. But I do know what it was I heard in that phone call a year ago: the opening rumbles of the Barney backlash.

Rare is the op-ed page or Sunday supplement that hasn't run a jokey anti-Barney piece--a wry lament, according to the requirements of the genre, by a baby-boom parent appalled at Barney's uplift, and at his child's mesmerized response. The articles are always meant to be funny and usually aren't--being, instead, strained exercises in the irony that is my generation's gift to popular culture. "So saccharine it can send adults into hypoglycemic shock" the Washington Post.."Ugly and sappy" the New York Times. So go the blurbs. Even the creators of Sesame Street criticize their PBS colleague, for Barney's high sugar content.

And the show is indeed wholesome-wholesome without relief. Unlike Sesame Street, set in a scene of urban decay, Barney entertains from a suburban schoolyard, swept clean of graffiti and trash. None of Barney's friends lives in a garbage can, and none grunts hip-hop. The pace is slow and lingering, a technique at odds with Sesame Street's barrage of spastic, quick-cut graphics that prep the kids for the countless hours of MTV awaiting them in adolescence. And instead of Sesame Street's multicultural insinuations, Barney's message revolves around the importance of brushing teeth, exercising, and even--this is how deep it goes-chewing with one's mouth closed.

Please understand: I can't stand Barney either. But then the show's not produced for me one point among many that seem lost on my fellow baby-boom parents. What's interesting in the general reaction is that wholesomeness should be so offensive, so ripe for ridicule. Happy kids, singing happy songs, learning simple lessons: where's the irony, the wordplay, the veiled social commentary? At each show's dose Barney gathers his friends to warble his signature tune. "We're a happy family," they sing, and America's parents--at least those enlightened parents with access to the op-ed pages--blow lunch.

The Barney backlash is getting serious. Recently the Washington Post ran a (front-page!) expose on the beast, documenting that Barney's creators are getting rich off public television. Barney is big business: dolls, books, videos, lunchpails, and the rest, grossing as much as $500 million last year. Not a dollar of which, needless to say, greases the palms of the videocrats at public TV. The scandal was quickly dubbed "Barneygate," and Senator Daniel Inouye promised to hold hearings on the shameful profiteering.

HERE, amazingly, the Barneybashers have stumbled over a legitimate point. But you have to wonder: Why Barney, and why now? For years, wised-up hucksters have used public television to hawk their dubious wares. Even now, Barney grosses less than Sesame Street. Leo Buscaglia, John Bradshaw, and other New Age barkers fatten weekly off their PBS shows. Bill Moyers is a kind of public-TV welfare queen, manipulating the government airwaves with minimum effort and maximum gall. His method is elegantly efficient. A grant-easily cadged from a leftwing foundation or clueless' corporation-covers production costs. The script becomes a book, padded with free pictures from the public domain. The book is sold relentlessly following every episode. 'Ditto the home-video version, with a prodigious mark-up. The only overhead goes to the accountants, who work overtime when the money rolls in.

It is an ingenious scam, but please, as they say on TV, don't try this at home-unless, like Moyers, you have an unerring sense of what PBS videophiles will swallow. Pagan religion, New Age medicine, endless palavers with Maya Angelou: milk these for millions and the Washington Post will let out long, mellow moos of pleasure. But start this crap about happy families, and you'll have to answer to Senator Inouye.

-- End --

Database: General Reference Center
Key Words: Barney and Friends
Library: State Library of Hawaii

Source: National Review, Nov 29, 1993 v45 n23 p80(1).

Title: Barney backlash. (what is right with the Public Broadcasting

Service children's television program 'Barney and Friends)
(Column) Author: Andrew Ferguson

Abstract: The children's television program 'Barney and Friends' may not be the most challenging entertainment on TV, but it does offer a certain degree of 'wholesomeness' that is rare. It is curious that this program is the subject of criticism and hypocritical resentment of its financial success.

Subjects: Television programs for children - Criticism, interpretation, etc. Nmd Works: Barney and Friends (Television program) - Criticism,

interpretation, etc.

Magazine Collection: 71F0867 Electronic Collection: A14753288

RN: A14753288

Full Text COPYRIGHT National Review Inc. 1993