Life After ‘Barney’: How Kids’ TV Grew Up and Embraced Parental Co-Viewing

Barbara Spindel explores the recent trend of co-viewing, as parents watch TV with their children and discover inventive and imaginative stories that engage both sets of viewers.

11.13.12 9:45 AM ET

I hadn’t heard the term “co-viewing” by the time my first child was old enough to begin watching television. But like many parents, I didn’t have to read any research studies to understand intuitively that it was better to watch TV with my daughter, engaging her on what she was seeing, than to leave her alone in front of the screen while I checked email or made dinner. (Not that I didn’t do that on occasion, too.)

Unfortunately, my daughter embarked on her television-watching career rather inauspiciously, insisting—forcefully—on seeing the same hand-me-down Barney video day after day. As a result, I suffered through countless viewings of a transportation-themed adventure that had the big purple lug riding planes, trains, and automobiles with an assortment of children whose ethnic backgrounds were diverse but whose strained smiles all looked about the same. Several years later the excessively didactic songs still pop into my head with Pavlovian predictability (when jaywalking: “Don’t cross the street in the middle in the middle in the middle in the middle in the middle of the block”). I was not surprised to learn that the Barney theme, along with songs by Metallica and Eminem, was on the so-called torture playlist used by U.S. interrogators to break prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.

What a difference a few years have made.

Writing in The New Yorker earlier this year, Emily Nussbaum observed that there’s been “a quiet renaissance among children’s shows,” citing Nickelodeon’s The Wonder Pets and Ni Hao, Kai-Lan as examples of preschool programs that are “as visually thrilling as they are well constructed.” Having experienced preschool programming anew with my second child, I agree, and it seems that at least part of the explanation lies in a newfound focus on co-viewing. Talking to executives at the networks responsible for creating preschool content suggests that now more than ever they are pitching shows to parents as much as to kids.

A press release from Disney’s recently launched preschool channel, Disney Junior, “invites mom and dad to join their child in the Disney experience of magical, musical, and heartfelt stories and characters.” Nancy Kanter, Disney Junior’s senior vice president of original programming, said the channel has been conscious from the beginning of creating content for a “double audience.” “You have the kids, but you [also] want the mom to fall in love with it,” she said in an interview, citing high production values, richness of story, and celebrity casting as reasons for the high adult ratings enjoyed by new shows like Doc McStuffins and Jake and the Never Land Pirates (Jake has featured celebs including Josh Duhamel, David Arquette, and Sharon Osbourne voicing characters).

Nussbaum calls Nickelodeon’s flagship Dora the Explorer “kryptonite to adults,” and Kanter likely had Dora and its imitators in mind when she acknowledged that in recent years, “story kind of took a back seat.” With shows asking children to “play along with the character as a gamelike experience, there was not the insistence [that] this needs to be a great story, which is a tradition Disney has always been wonderful at,” Kanter said. 

Even Teri Weiss, executive vice president of production and development at Nickelodeon Preschool, makes a different case for Dora than for the preschool shows that presumably hold more appeal for grown-ups. “If there is a kid loyalist who loves Dora so much, there’s a certain joy a parent has in seeing a child connect to a character,” she said in an interview. (Personally, I felt more bewilderment than joy over my daughter’s attachment to Barney.) 

On the other hand, Nick’s music-driven shows like The Fresh Beat Band have been particularly (even unexpectedly) popular with adults, with the recent Fresh Beat Band tour extending the show’s reach beyond the living room. “Parents are looking for opportunities to share experience with their kids,” Weiss said. “The success of the Fresh Beat Band tour has demonstrated that if my kid loves this show and we can experience this concert as a family, they love that.”

According to Weiss, Nick also looks for chances to incorporate adult humor into its preschool lineup. “If we can do something funny for parents but not at the expense of throwing the kids off track, there are opportunities to do that,” she said, recalling a Backyardigans James Bond parody in which the character Pablo says he likes his juice box “shaken, not stirred.” “We’re looking to figure out a way to reach both kids and parents. It’s something we think about when developing shows.” 

Of course, the use of parodies and celebrity guests originated with one iconic kids’ show: Sesame Street. “They wrote the book that everybody else is following,” Lesli Rotenberg, PBS’s senior vice president of children’s media, said in an interview. “They pioneered it, and they still do it best to this day. While they appeal to adults, it’s never at the expense of the kids. The child’s experience is never compromised.” 

Co-viewing “is a really big topic at PBS,” Rotenberg continued. “When parents watch programs with their kids, they’re able to expand the learning and apply it to their lives and make it relevant to them.” Rotenberg described a “transformation” at PBS that began in 2005, when the network began launching new series every fall. (Some of the biggest successes since then, with children and adults, have been Curious George, which originally featured the voice of William H. Macy, and The Cat in the Hat Knows a Lot About That!, which features the voice of Martin Short.) Rotenberg called this fall’s new show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, “a huge hit that fuels the whole schedule.” The animated Daniel, created with input from PBS’s Next Generation Media Advisory Board, is a sort of sequel to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood; its nods to the original have built-in appeal to co-viewing parents who grew up watching Fred Rogers.

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Disney recently formed its own advisory board to counsel the network on preschool curriculum development. Robert Selman is a professor of education and psychology at Harvard who sits on the board. He observed that so far, most research on co-viewing has concerned its role in enhancing children’s comprehension of what they see on the screen. But Selman, who doesn’t see increased comprehension as co-viewing’s primary benefit, is more interested in the “relational aspects of co-viewing.”

“A lot of it is really about having a shared experience,” he said in an interview, likening co-viewing to reading aloud to kids who already know how to read. “You still do it. That’s what I think is the power of it.”

“Co-viewing is a really hot idea right now,” said Melissa Morgenlander, a blogger who’s worked in educational television production and who wrote her doctoral dissertation on co-viewing. “I think it comes out of parents’ need to feel like they’re in some control of all this media and technology.” (Indeed, Kanter, Weiss, and Rotenberg all spoke of their networks’ programs having multiplatform content to make the most of children’s increasing use of digital media.)

“But for me, it’s not just about monitoring. It’s an enjoyment that comes from sharing experience with your family,” Morgenlander continued, echoing Selman. “I’m more likely to watch the shows that I really enjoy. And I don’t care about the celebrities if the content’s really bad. A celebrity in a show I already like is kind of like a bonus.”

Morgenlander supports the emphasis on co-viewing even if she’s somewhat cynical regarding motives. “It comes off as a little bit monetary—we’re going to pull mom and dad in so they can buy more Disney stuff for their kids,” she said. “But on the other hand, is it so bad that they’re trying to get you to spend more time with your kids? In the end it’s going to benefit the children involved.”

Given the absence of chuckling purple dinosaurs in this adult-friendly world of preschool programming, parents stand to benefit as well.