To the pediatric establishment, no amount of TV is healthy for children under two. But this week we were reminded what a pipe dream that recommendation is. The creators of the new channel BabyFirst TV say that as long as toddlers are tuning in, they may as well be watching age-appropriate content. Bob speaks with BabyFirst TV co-founder Sharon Rechter.
BOB GARFIELD: Food companies aren't alone in targeting kids. Entire TV channels, like Nickelodeon and Boomerang, focus on children. And now comes a new entry, this one especially for babies. BabyFirstTV became available via satellite this month through DirecTV, absent of advertising, for $9.99 a month. It's infant TV, with a lineup that includes sign language lessons and videos of puzzle pieces putting themselves together. On the heels of the launch, the Kaiser Family Foundation released something of its own, a study showing that while 26 percent of parents say their children younger than two have never seen TV, a full 43 percent of children under two watch it every single day of their little lives. With that in mind, we called on BabyFirst's Executive Vice-President Sharon Rechter to see what they've cooked up for the under-two set.
SHARON RECHTER: Everything we show is short segments. They're all two to seven minutes long, because that's the attention cycle of a baby. In essence, what BabyFirstTV does is that we transform the television from a passive tool to an active tool that can help babies and parents interact. If, for example, you'd see on the screen a red ball bouncing, the subtitles for the parents would say, ask your baby what color is the ball?
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you knew that the launch of BabyFirst would precipitate a chorus of concern from those who say no amount of television is appropriate for babies. And I noticed in your board of advisors you have a pantheon of pediatricians and child psychologists lined up to defend the project. But is it hard to get around the recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics that kids under two shouldn't watch any TV?
SHARON RECHTER: I invite and encourage all those who say children should not watch TV to come and check out BabyFirstTV before they judge it. The AAP, in its statement from 1999, did not differentiate between general TV, or, if I may say, between the medium and the content, so based on their statement, a show like "Sopranos" would be the same like a show on BabyFirstTV, which is completely ridiculous.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, whatever the Academy of Pediatrics recommends, the fact is, little kids do watch a lot of television. There's a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation on children's media consumption, which is kind of jaw-dropping.
SHARON RECHTER: Yup.
BOB GARFIELD: Sixty-one percent of kids under two watch TV or videos every day for an average of an hour. Is the idea here that if kids are going to watch TV anyway, they might as well watch something that's, you know, not going to rot their minds?
SHARON RECHTER: The data is even more extensive than what we believed. Eighty-eight percent of babies under the age of three are watching television every day. We can speculate as much as we'd like on what babies should be doing or could be doing, but the fact of life is, as you mentioned, that babies are watching TV. And what BabyFirstTV offers is an alternative, an alternative with programming that is tailor-made for the needs of babies – not for children, but rather for babies. I can just quote one of the warm responses we've been getting from people who are viewing BabyFirstTV now on DirecTV. They say it's just like reading a book but more engaging.
BOB GARFIELD: That's quite a claim. And I've looked over your materials, and it seems to suggest, at least in broad terms, that not only is BabyFirst not as bad for your kids as other TV, but that it's actually a positive step, that it's actually good for them.
SHARON RECHTER: I would not claim that BabyFirstTV in its own makes your baby smarter. That's a claim that we still need to prove. But I can say interaction between babies and parents does help a child develop, and that's exactly what BabyFirstTV is offering.
BOB GARFIELD: I have a five-year-old, and she was brought up partly on these "Baby Einstein" videos. And I got to tell you, first of all, she ain't no Einstein. What she's learned is how to watch TV. She wants to watch as much as we will let her. Isn't that ultimately what BabyFirst teaches kids, that they like parking themselves in front of the tube?
SHARON RECHTER: Well, I can't comment on your specific five-year-old, because I don't know her, which I'm sure she's a very lovely kid. But I can tell you the fact of life is that babies are watching TV, regardless of the existence of BabyFirstTV. BabyFirstTV offers an alternative, an alternative that is tailor-made for their needs and ability, an alternative that does not contain inappropriate stimulations. Nobody's flying. Nobody's dying. Nobody's puking. Nothing of that sort. So what we're giving them is a safe and clean alternative of watching high-quality programming, tailor-made for the baby's needs.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Sharon, thank you very much.
SHARON RECHTER: Thank you for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Sharon Rechter is executive vice-president of BabyFirstTV, the new channel for babies launched earlier this month.