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Does TV help babies or hold them back?


Buzz McClain

April 2, 2008

Sharon Rechter remembers the day four years ago when a friend dropped by for lunch.

"She had one baby, two bottles, three diapers and five baby DVDs," Rechter, now 32, says. "Not having children then, I wasn't familiar with baby DVDs, and I asked her what they were. She said with kind of a straight face, 'They make my baby smarter.'"

"I said, 'How do you know?' and she said, 'Because it says so on the box.'"

Rechter had her doubts. Intrigued, she and her partner, Guy Oranim, investigated the $1.5 billion baby-DVD industry and discovered "it was not supervised by anybody. You and [I] could take my 1-year-old, video her playing with a puppy, put classical music in it and claim it was educational."

She also learned there was nothing like it on television. Not on the Public Broadcasting System -- Barney and Dora the Explorer skew to an older demographic -- not on the Cartoon Network, and not in any of the "family blocks" on network television.

Seeing a niche with a ready market of consumers, Rechter and Oranim founded BabyFirstTV, a subscription-based network available via satellite (channel 293) and cable for $4.99 a month. Its programs air 24 hours a day, seven days a week and are targeted to children ages 6 months to 3 years.

Did you just shudder?

Or did you reach for the phone to call DirecTV?

Lots of adults have done both.

Since its launch on Mother's Day 2006, BabyFirstTV has found its way to 30 countries, making the network available to some 80 million homes. A DVD line of the programming is coming to stores soon.

Of the 500 hours of content on the network now, "80 percent we produce ourselves," Rechter says.

That programming has features unique to the network that are intended to assure parents that the programming isn't harmful. For one thing, there are no commercials on the network. For another, all of the "shows" -- really two- to-seven-minute segments -- are signed off on by chief educational adviser Arthur Prober, a doctor of educational psychology; and a self-regulatory review board including pediatricians, authors of parenting books and others.

"If they don't like it, we don't show it," she says. "Believe me, we've spent a lot of money on things that haven't aired."

Positive effects questioned

Still, the general idea of parking babies in car seats on the floor in front of a television troubles childhood-development professionals. The American Academy of Pediatrics says simply, "Don't do it!" (exclamation theirs).

"These early years are crucial in a child's development," the AAP states on its Web site. "The Academy is concerned about the impact of television programming intended for children younger than age two and how it could affect your child's development ...

"Any positive effect of television on infants and toddlers is still open to question, but the benefits of parent-child interactions are proven. Under age two, talking, singing, reading, listening to music or playing are far more important to a child's development than any TV show."

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood added BabyFirstTV to a suit filed with the Federal Trade Commission a month after the network launched, complaining that it -- as well as the Baby Einstein and Brainy Baby line of DVDs -- were falsely advertising educational benefits without evidence.

In December, the FTC found in favor of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and this year, Walt Disney Video, which produced Brainy Baby and Baby Einstein, stopped advertising the programs as educational. The FTC's findings would apply to BabyFirstTV and "any marketer of products claimed to provide educational or developmental benefits to children under 2."

BabyFirstTV still labels itself as "a brand-new educational tool." They have reports that 3-month-olds are tuning in, but they stick by their 6-month start age because "that's the age where a child can really follow from an eye-development perspective, and it's the recommendation of our pediatricians."

To fulfill their commitment to parents that the programming will be beneficial and interactive, says Rechter, programming on BabyFirstTV "comes with parenting subtitles so they don't interfere with the child's viewing but help mom interact. For example, if you see a red ball bouncing on the screen, it would say to you as a dad, 'Ask what color is the ball?'"

The network's on-air logo is color-coded to represent "which educational aspect is being taught," she says. "So when you are watching on the screen, the flower will be only one color, let's say blue, and that means to mom we are now teaching numbers. Again, that's to promote interaction between mom and the baby."

Programming for different ages

Because children of various stages of development will be tuning in, the programming is developed so it is interesting to different age groups within the demographic, she says. "Say we have a sand painting segment, so you see the hand painting in the sand and you hear classical music; if you're a 3-month-old, we're training your eye movement and showing you contrast of colors and movement and music; to a 1-year-old, we're drawing a horse and giving you another way to learn the word 'horse'; to a 3-year-old, it's a guessing game."

At night, when all good babies should be sleeping through until morning, BabyFirstTV goes into a drowsy mode: It's all kaleidoscopic images, videos of dangling mobiles and fish swimming in a tank, accompanied by soothing classical music.

"In February we had a technical issue with DirecTV and they got hundreds of calls at 2 in the morning asking, 'Where is BabyFirst?' That just shows people are watching."


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