Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Favorite Shows

I like television. When I was nine years old the salesmen from our local cable company came walking through our neighborhood passing out these little “HBO On Air” guides with the film “Towering Inferno” on the cover, promising crystal clear reception and movies with all the curses and no commercials.

My parents decided free TV was good enough and indicated they were not about to join the cable revolution. I went to my room and put together a set of message points designed to reverse that decision. (This is a true story) If this kind of thing happened today I would have been on a computer building PowerPoint slides. I made due with a ballpoint pen and index cards. Looking back, this was probably the first carefully constructed argument I took the time to prepare and deliver in my life – convincing my parents to subscribe to cable television. Not sure what that says about me, but there it is. My efforts were successful, my parents swayed, and I've had cable ever since.

I’m just old enough to remember a time when TV went to bed every night. The stations signed off and put up snow, or test patterns, after playing the Star Spangled Banner to footage of flags waving in the wind. HBO went all night, or nearly all night, which was something new and oddly comforting. People who have grown up with television as it is today can’t relate to the world going to black around midnight and staying that way until 5 or 6 a.m. the following morning. Today, we get ticked off at cable channels running infomercials in the overnight hours because it seems like they’re copping out, phoning it in. “Come on! They couldn’t find anything to put on at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday except Daisy Fuentes hawking Windsor Pilates, what the hell?”

Still, with a couple of hundred channels available just about everywhere through digital cable, there’s an ample array of original late-night programming interspersed around The Juiceman, Tony Robbins and that wild-eyed maniac screaming about common sense regular food cures to real illnesses “that they don’t want you to know about!” You can surf by Discovery Channel at 2 a.m., find yourself midway through a “Deadliest Catch” marathon and spend hours watching small bands of godforsaken fishermen crammed onto grungy boats, chopping ice off crab pots and getting knocked over by freezing waves every few seconds. Have you seen this thing? I have a good friend who works for a hedge fund and makes as much in an afternoon as these guys do in a season. He gets an Aeron chair, is allowed to order dinner from a real restaurant when he has to work late and still finds a way to complain. Next time he does I’m going to suggest he go out for a little spin on the Rollo or Maverick, so he can tap into some of the elusive "perspective" Nigel Tufnel and David St. Hubbins found at Graceland.

So we’re a TV house. Nothing against parents who have carefully conceived television rules – one hour a day, one hour every other day in months that begin with the letter J (none at all in months that don’t), TV parsed out in 15-minute increments, with a channel change every 5 minutes, which, as far as I can tell, is a technique designed to induce schizophrenia.

Madison and Ava are allowed to watch television, within reason, and their TV diet consists exclusively of age-appropriate channels and shows we’ve selected and put in our rotation. Noggin is safe viewing any time of day, so is a PBS channel we get called Kids Thirteen. Disney Channel is OK during specific windows, same with Nickelodeon and Discovery Kids. I covered cooking shows in a previous post, we like WLIW-Create for that and sometimes the Food Network. “Iron Chef” is a little vivid, and the unveiling of the “secret ingredient,” which is often alive, is problematic.

In the morning, we go downstairs when the girls wake up and they start their day with a sippy cup of organic 1% milk and whatever show they are able to agree on. We used to let the first one downstairs pick the first show, but that approach resulted in a little competition between the girls that was not exactly parent-friendly, for obvious reasons, so we’ve moved to the “instead of waking Mommy and Daddy up at 5 a.m. to get your specific selection let’s compromise on something and all watch together” approach.

We recently bought a new car for Gwen and the girls and decided against the one option that would seem to be a given for us – an in-vehicle DVD system. We had just assumed that when we got the next family car we’d go down this road, but as we closed in on the purchase we opted against it. Seemed to me that we fed the girls more than enough television at home, we didn’t need to supplement their diet with little video snacks on drives around town. On longer trips we always have the option of balancing our portable player between the two front seats so the girls can watch in the back.

I was also a little concerned that having this capability resident in our vehicle could lead to countless arguments and angry demands for specific programming during the 20-minute drive home from Madison’s school, or ten-minute drive into town, or the five-second trip down the driveway. I had nightmare images of Gwen slamming all three of them into a telephone pole or an 18-wheeler while buried in the glove box searching for the LazyTown Christmas DVD.

We also really like to talk and sing in the car, we do this as a family, and it’s terrific. We have iTunes playlists of the girls’ favorite sing-along songs and we really have a good time together when we’re not yelling at them about the ziplock bag of Oatmeal Squares they’ve just carelessly dumped all over the floorboards, or the full and open bottle of Poland Spring water that has suddenly gone missing following an inscrutable thud.

The girls have gravitated to different programming at different times, but at three and five they finally have hit the point at which they can agree on a show and both understand and enjoy it. Madison called the theme of her first birthday party when one of the first words she learned was “Elmo.” Barney has spent a good deal of time in both Madison and Ava’s top spot, there are a few other classics that have captivated one or both of them from time to time, and occasionally for long periods of time. New shows continually emerge and stay in favor. Once retired, it’s rare for an old favorite to return to the rotation with any kind of staying power. (Oswald just accomplished this, to our amazement) Across all of the networks and all of the options, I’d have to say our top ten consists of the following, in no particular order:

Sesame Street (Elmo particularly)


Dragon Tales

Dora the Explorer (Ava thinks she is Dora and, except for the fact that we don’t speak Spanish, we don’t disagree.)

Maggie and the Ferocious Beast (Terrific show. Harmless. We bought the DVDs. This one had a long run in our house and still kicks back in once in a while.)

Zoom (Madison got into a big Zoom phase at one point, I always disliked that fat kid Buzz whose run on the show coincided with the period of her greatest interest. I was convinced he terrorized the rest of the cast with assorted off-camera taunts and tortures.)

JoJo’s Circus

Rainbow Fish (An excellent benefit of HBO on Demand, along with The Sopranos and Entourage.)



Shows that didn’t make the top 10 but have still logged significant time on our sets include: Miffy, Maisy, Arthur, Maya & Miguel, Little Einsteins, Wonder Pets, The Wiggles, Franklin, Oswald, Miss Spider’s Sunny Patch Friends, The Backyardigans, Oobi, Little Bear and Berenstain Bears.

Shows that have not resonated enough to even make this secondary list include: Caillou (I was always happy about this, because every time we stumbled onto this show Caillou was whining about something or acting out, I could never understand why someone would take the time to animate this brat), Boohbah (I’m not sure what child education expert consulted here, but this show seems likely to result in mental regression or, at best, stagnation), Clifford (try as we might, the big red dog just never kicked in), Teletubbies (see above note on Boohbah), 64 Zoo Lane (loved the theme song, the girls never really got into the show), and Connie the Cow (great and vivid animation, stilted storytelling and narration delivered in a thick British accent were the apparent barriers.)

From our home to yours... happy viewing.


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