Bob the Builder boss wants TV in the cradle

Teachers and experts horrified as programme-makers target new-born babies. Michael Shaw reports

NEW-BORN babies will be the next target for makers of television programmes.

Peter Orton, the multi-millionaire owner of the company which produces Bob the Builder and Barney the dinosaur, believes there is a gap in the market for educational television aimed at zero to 18-month-old viewers.

The chairman of the television company Hit Entertainment plans to set up a conference later this year so programme-makers and education experts can discuss the matter.

He said: "Everybody realises there is a huge learning period for children from zero to 18 months, but nobody is making anything for them. Those kids are like sponges at that age, and there's a great opportunity there. That might scare people, but it is a very interesting area."

Mr Orton said it was too early to know exactly what form the programmes would take, but they would be simpler than current shows such as Teletubbies,which is aimed at three-year-olds.

"It may be animation, it may be soft music, it may be very slow-moving," he said. "It may be based on large characters which the children can focus on."

He hopes to explore the potential of TV for babies with the help of the research centre Futurelab, which was set up last year by the National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts with support from the Department for Education and Skills. Mr Orton is a board member of the laboratory.

But the idea has horrified some teachers and education experts.

Eric Spear, president of the National Association of Head Teachers, said that children were already arriving at school with weak social skills because of television.

"It has become an electronic baby-sitter. There are experiences small children need that they cannot get from the TV."

Research by early-years expert Dr Sally Ward has demonstrated a link between television-viewing and the delayed acquisition of speech in young children, while a US study published this week found that toddlers with televisions in their rooms were more likely to be obese.

David Burke, UK director of the anti-television campaign White Dot, said:

"The television companies are making money by targeting younger and younger kids. This is cynical and disturbing."

However, Neil McLelland, director of the National Literacy Trust, said that programmes made specifically for under 18-month-olds could be a valuable aid to babies' linguistic development, providing they were not left alone to watch them.

Mr Orton will be speaking at the two-day Contagious Creativity education forum in Bristol, which takes place next week.

The Contagious Creativity forum, June 12-13 at The Watershed, Bristol. For tickets ring 0117 903 1149 or see www.nestafuturelab.org

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