Cape Town — One of the fastest-growing phenomena in worldwide children's television, an innovative British series called Teletubbies, launches the first of 260 episodes on M-Net's KTV today.
The series, which has been billed as "a phenomenon bigger than Shakespeare", has transfixed tots and adults alike in Britain, where its screenings on BBC television have achieved cult status with the rave generation.
Educationists and parents, however, are concerned that the series - which talks "babytalk" to children and mimics their activities on a garish, psychedelic set - will turn younger children into "cot potatoes" eager for their daily "fix" of the programme.
Aimed at children aged between two and six, it's gathered an audience of some two million young viewers in the six months it's been on air on the BBC, with the first two videos from the show selling 100 000 copies each in the first two weeks.
Teletubbies has become the BBC's fastest-selling series ever, with cuddly toys, tapes and books rolling off the production line to give sales estimated at some R250 million by the end of this year.
Plans for a CD are under way too, and producers estimate it could be No 1 in the British pop charts at Christmas, possibly edging out Elton John's Candle In The Wind 1997.
A spokesperson for KTV says the programme is an undoubted phenomenon, which South Africans are going to find both unusual and absorbing. "It has university professors rushing home to watch it. I personally find it very odd, but fascinating.
"There are a lot of theories about it, but one is that it definitely encourages children to speak because it talks to them in their own "language", she said.
While British educationists and parents have protested about what they see as the "dumbing down" of children's TV, with burbling babytalk and simplistic repetition, small viewers and intelligent adults are completely hooked on Teletubbies.
The creator of the series, Anne Wood, says the series has been carefully researched and opens windows on to a hi-tech world. "I believe TV and video are the most underestimated force for good in educating our children in the technological age in which we live," she says.
The programmes were born from the observation that most children in today's world grow up with technological devices which "speak" to them, such as computers, the car radio, the microwave oven or washing machine - and the most magical of these is the TV.
Each episode features a combination of the world of the Teletubbies in their Home Hill - a hi-tech superdome - and live action films of real children doing everyday things. These are interspersed with "magic events" of computer-generated images and music superimposed on to the Teletubby landscape. It shows children who are confident, curious and full of fun.
A recent article in a British newspaper said the series could give shy children the confidence to speak, according to speech therapists, and that each episode developed children's thinking skills and knowledge of the world.