Dade Hayes, assistant managing editor of Variety, decided to investigate the exploding world of children's entertainment after he became a parent himself. He chronicles his findings in "Anytime Playdate: Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom, or How Television Became My Baby's Best Friend," just published by Free Press/Simon Schuster

Dade Hayes, assistant managing editor of Variety, decided to investigate the exploding world of children’s entertainment after he became a parent himself. He chronicles his findings in “Anytime Playdate: Inside the Preschool Entertainment Boom, or How Television Became My Baby’s Best Friend,” just published by Free Press/Simon Schuster.

A lot of parents undergo a spectacular freak-out when confronted with the digitized, multiplatform entertainment universe designed to entice their kids. It all seems too much, too fast, given the dramatic changes they witness everyday in their household.

“Banish that television!” they reflexively howl. “It causes attention-deficit issues, impedes learning and, besides, all those shows are so crass and commercial.” Some even howl in print, writing studiously hysterical books such as “The Plug-In Drug,” “Endangered Minds” or “Consuming Kids.”

As a parent of two young children, I felt compelled to investigate preschool showbiz for myself for a tome titled “Anytime Playdate.” After navigating the narcissistic realm of Mandarin-teaching nannies, gourmet baby food shops and other enticements for achievement-obsessed parents, it’s clear that restless striving is fueling a massive business.

This vast $21 billion playground — spanning TV, toys, websites, live shows, music and DVDs — is fueled by a generation of parents exposed to preschool TV themselves. The barriers to entry have all but disappeared.

When I first showed “Sesame Street” to my daughter, Margot, it honestly felt like passing along a family heirloom, something I had treasured but wanted her to keep as her talisman. That same feeling inspired an Atlanta housewife, Julie Clark, to create Baby Einstein.

Only when Margot became hooked on Elmo, screaming when I turned him off, did I understand the serious pitfalls of media exposure at an early age.

And yet, after two years in the trenches, it’s also clear that there is a lot of great programming that helps kids. While some skeptical research makes headlines, the truth is that the scientific jury is still out on the effects of all this content. And encouraging findings have been made about “Blue’s Clues” helping cognitive function or “Sesame Street” preparing kids for the classroom.

Thanks to iTunes, DVRs and portable DVD players, you don’t have to plop your child in front of an endless parade of cereal and toy commercials. And the mushrooming of content — the pair of shows I grew up on has become more than 50 on the air every day — has arguably brought about a golden age of preschool entertainment.

Is there schlock too? Of course. And the toy aisle has far too many ties to Nickelodeon or Disney franchises. I worry about how that closed imagination loop further diagrams every moment of a child’s life, a trend noted in Neil Postman’s indelible book, “The Disappearance of Childhood.”

One venerable kids entertainment consultant, Karen Hill Scott, told me we are living in “the era of the weak parent.” I see where she’s coming from. But I also feel there are more ways than ever for parents to be strong, to guide their kids through the mediascape instead of burying their developing minds in the sand.

Variety‘s Scribe Tribe:

Boffo! How I Learned to Love the Blockbuster and Fear the Bomb, by Peter Bart: A look at the biggest hits in film, TV and theater from the past 100 years.

The Hollywood Dictionary, by Timothy M. Gray and J.C. Suares: Socko illustrated guide to showbiz slanguage, from ankle to wicket.

The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson, by Robert Hofler: Notorious Hollywood agent Henry Willson also mentored Tab Hunter, Troy Donahue and other moniker-challenged leading men.

Screen Plays, by David S. Cohen: A sometimes funny, sometimes horrifying look at how screenplays get written and developed.

Season Finale, by Susanne Daniels and Cynthia Littleton: The parallel stories of the WB and UPN from their prosperous beginnings to their precipitous demise.

Fast Women: The Legendary Ladies of Racing, by Todd McCarthy: The stories of the pioneering women in the driver’s seat in the ’50s.

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