For preschoolers, Barney is the biggest thing on TV

PURPLE PASSION

November 30, 1992|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

He's purple and green, soft and round, 6-feet-4-inches tall -- and he's the hottest thing in children's TV.

After only seven months on the air, Barney the dinosaur, star of PBS' "Barney & Friends," is already bigger than Big Bird.

In July, just three months after it debuted, the national audience for the show was measured by Nielsen at 1.84 million homes. By comparison, the audience for "Sesame Street," the long-running signature series for children's programming on PBS, was 1.29 million homes.

Those are the facts. But to really comprehend what's happening with Barney you have to see him up close and personal, at the mall.

At Laurel Center Mall recently, parents and children started arriving at 5 p.m., taking up places near J. C. Penney's on the upper level where Barney was scheduled to appear two hours later.

"This is all he's been talking about for days," Marge Donnelly said, pointing to her 4-year-old son, Jason.

"Barneyyyy, Barneyyyyy, Barneyyyyy," Jason periodically screamed.

By 6:45, the entire upper level of the mall from one end to the other -- from Penney's to Montgomery Ward -- was packed with parents, preschoolers and strollers. Security officers estimated the crowd at an amazing 40,000.

When Barney appeared at the Penney's entrance, thousands of preschoolers began screaming "Barneyyyyyy, Barneyyyy, Barneyyyy." Like a rock star -- surrounded by security guards in T-shirts shouting into walkie-talkies -- Barney waded into the crowd hugging, kissing, touching and shaking hands.

Jenny Berneys, 5, managed to touch Barney as he moved past her and her father, Mike. After Barney passed, she pulled her own Barney doll to her face and kissed it over and over, saying, "I love you, I love you, I love you, Barney." She was trembling with excitement.

"Don't ask me, I have no idea," her 44-year-old father said. "I've watched the Barney show, but I really don't understand his appeal at this level at all." While there are plenty of parents, who are only too eager to discuss the show's appeal as "part and parcel of its retro '50s packaging" or "in terms of its elegant minimalism" to quote just two, Barney's appeal to preschoolers is surely it's simplicity. Barney is basic TV -- very basic.

The show, which airs on Channels 22 and 67 at 7:30 a.m., consists of two sets -- a classroom and a playground. The cast consists of eight children, Barney and another dinosaur named Baby Bop, who is green with a purple belly instead of purple with a green belly like Barney. (Baby Bop and Barney are not related, according to Patrice Pascual, a spokeswoman for Barney.)

Only four children are used at any one time, because the producers feel more than four makes it too hard for preschoolers to keep track of who's who. And each episode deals with only one theme, such as friendship, family or safety.

The show generally begins with one of the children wishing for something in the presence of a Barney doll, and the real Barney magically appears.

"I wish I had a friend," a new girl in school says to open one episode. Barney appears, introduces her to three of his "friends" and then the children spend the half-hour singing songs about friendship with Barney.

There are no quick cuts or any of the other MTV techniques that have come to so dominate children's television in recent years.

And that lack of video bells and whistles might be what makes it work so well for preschoolers. While the conventional wisdom is that children need flashier and flashier images to hold their attention, research shows preschool children do not understand much of what's on TV.

While many assume that we are somehow born video-literate, the truth is that children have to learn to decode techniques of TV and film to make sense out of it. In her book, "Mind and Media," Patricia Marks Greenfield makes the point with an anecdote about a 3-year-old boy who became extremely upset during "E.T." each time the extraterrestrial was off-screen. "He did not realize that a given shot merely samples the world of a film: that a character can be off-camera and still be alive and well in the film," Dr. Marks Greenfield wrote.

What makes "Barney & Friends" look boring or simplistic to some adults is exactly what can make it so involving for preschoolers.

And while on-screen it looks simple, getting that effect is no easy matter, said Sheri L. Parks, who teaches a course in television and children at the University of Maryland College Park.

Dr. Parks said that "Barney & Friends" appears to be the product of some of the best research on children and TV to come out of the Children's Television Workshop. The use of music and unstructured dance, the lack of an authoritarian adult presence, Barney's delight in simply being silly at times with the children make for a TV show that is genuine "kid culture" for preschoolers, in the words of Dr. Parks.

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