Tool time with Bob the Builder

Family: The hottest animated TV character around teaches in subtle ways -- and he doesn't annoy parents.

April 07, 2002|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Luke Peters likes to play trains. He likes to swim and jump on the backyard trampoline. But if you really want to see this 2-year-old boy get happy, just start singing a certain TV theme song.

Bob the Builder. Can we fix it? Bob the Builder. Yes, we can!

Never heard of Bob the Builder and his sunny disposition? You probably don't have a preschooler in the house.

Bob is big, really big, with the sandbox set. His half-hour show can be seen on Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. lineup weekdays and Saturday mornings on CBS.

The show features Bob, a hard-hat-and-tool-belt wearing construction worker, and his entourage of talking machines from a digger named Scoop to the cement mixer Dizzy. He even has a human assistant, Wendy, with whom he talks a lot on his cell phone.

When Bob's on TV, Luke is just transfixed.

"Luke's OK with Barney or the Teletubbies but when Bob the Builder comes on, he just starts screaming that song," marvels his mother, Joyce Peters of Stewartstown, Pa. "It's the show he gets most excited about."

Shortly after it first aired on Britain's BBC One three years ago, the stop-action animated TV show featuring movable plastic figures became an overnight sensation in England. Bob's theme song, a catchy little ditty with a "yes, we can" lyric repeated over and over, turned into a best-selling single the following year.

Officials at HIT Entertainment, the British company that produces the show and now markets it in 180 countries, says the concept was relatively simple: Take heavy construction machines, which youngsters love, and turn them into characters who work together.

"What little boy doesn't own a truck?" says Holly Stein, HIT's senior vice president of global consumer products. "Now, it's a truck with a name and a personality. That's the icing on the cake."

Bigger for boys

In the world of commercial children's television, such tie-in opportunities are considered to be more than icing on the cake -- they're a big chunk of the cake, too. Already, Bob has generated more than 600 products, from books and videos to plush figures, talking toys, a laptop computer, LEGO building blocks, and on and on.

"He's turned into one of our top preschool characters. He's really taken off this spring," says Chris Duquette, a preschool buyer for Pittsfield, Mass.-based KB Toys. "The winning thing is that it appeals to both boys and girls. You don't see a lot of licenses like that."

Actually, Bob's appeal skews a bit toward boys more than girls by a 55-45 margin; at least that's what research by Nickelodeon and HIT shows. Most of the show's 1.7 million viewers are between the ages of 2 and 6, according to the cable network.

"It seems bigger for boys," says Linda Meyer, director of the family child-care center at Catonsville Presbyterian Church. "The hammering, the toolbox, the clothes, that appeals to the average 3-year-old."

Bob the Builder isn't the most popular show on Nick Jr., but he may be the hottest. The network picked the program up last year at the urging of network executive Brown Johnson. While visiting friends in West Sussex, England, two years ago, she saw how a 2-year-old boy was spellbound whenever Bob came on TV.

"It's the strength of the subject matter -- trucks and buildings and teamwork," says Johnson, executive vice president of Nick Jr. "The world of trucks is a very interesting world to kids."

A subtle curriculum

The show is not without its drawbacks, however. There is little of what producers call an "overt curriculum" -- no lessons in reading, writing or arithmetic. That sets it apart from the more typical preschool fare as Barney, Sesame Street or Blue's Clues.

Nor does Bob live in a very diverse world -- he and Wendy and all their human friends are white. And Wendy often seems to be more secretary than construction worker -- hanging around the office while Bob is building.

But Johnson says the lack of diversity is acceptable in the context of a diverse Nick Jr. lineup. Bob is followed by such shows as Little Bill, which is about an African-American family and Dora the Explorer, which features a Latina. The show's producers say Bob may be getting a black cast member as early as next fall.

As for the educational value, officials at HIT say Bob teaches plenty, but the curriculum is subtle.

"Sometimes parents equate education only with cognitive development, learning numbers and letters, but there's other things that are important, too," says Mary Ann Dudko, who reviews Bob's scripts as HIT's vice president of content development. "Teamwork is an important concept and that's evident in every show."

Still, Bob has something that many preschool shows don't -- it's not so painful for an adult to watch it, too.

Joyce Peters likes it well enough to put Bob's theme song on her home answering machine. To Luke's delight, she recorded a "yes, we can get back to you" greeting. And she hasn't heard a single complaint yet.

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