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Hollywood, Please Throw Your Weight Behind This Cause

April 23, 2001|KENN VISELMAN | Kenn Viselman is chairman of the itsy bitsy Entertainment Co., which licenses and markets "Teletubbies" in North America

Obesity in children is a crime. It deprives them of all the things for which we love them the most--their boundless energy, their unabashed self-confidence and, often, what may have been their fond memories of childhood in later life. It robs them of their rights to red rover, freezes them out of schoolyard games of freeze tag and, quite possibly, leads to social hindrances--and potentially dangerous health hazards--well into their teenage years and beyond.

Like most crimes perpetrated against children--be they gratuitous violence in so-called family films and video games, sexual innuendo in TV series targeting children or blatant, hard-sell messages from advertisers that quietly slip onto home videos from the largest entertainment companies with names supposedly synonymous with safe family fare--Hollywood has opted to take a seat on the couch rather than an active role in countering this serious problem.

Since Natalie Green, the plucky and plump protagonist on television's "Facts of Life," sat down to her first ice cream sundae and "Sesame Street's" Cookie Monster gleefully gobbled his first batch of baked treats, the issue of childhood obesity in the U.S. has grown into a full-fledged epidemic, with more than 25% of the nation's children now overweight.

Obesity is one of the primary causes of diabetes, and experts accustomed to seeing the dread disease affect those in later life are now alarmed to find it surfacing in people in their early 20s.

Clearly, Hollywood is not singularly to blame for the country's obesity epidemic. Fewer hours spent outdoors for "latchkey" and other children; school budget cuts causing once-required physical education classes to be abandoned in schools across the country; improper nutrition and the inordinate amount of time spent by the average child in front of computer and TV screens are all contributing factors.

Hollywood, however, does boast the lion's share of eyeballs and influence on its young audience and, therefore, has a responsibility to lead the charge in the fight against obesity.

Thankfully, some companies are beginning to take notice. Coke recently announced that, for the first time in its extensive history, it will add "healthy beverage alternatives" to its vending machines situated in schools across the country. Healthful help is now also available for preschool children with a new Elmo exercise video from Sesame Workshop.

At the itsy bitsy Entertainment Co., we too have chosen to take action instead of waiting for someone else to do it. As a recent article from the WebMD National NewsCenter suggests, "Being overweight during childhood can lead to obesity in adulthood--a risk factor for serious diseases such as heart disease and diabetes." With this in mind, we have joined forces with six prominent national children's health organizations and our broadcast partner, PBS, to organize a special nationwide fitness initiative, designed to share the benefits of exercise and health with the youngest of children.

As part of the event, a new fitness video, "Go! Exercise With the Teletubbies," has been created and distributed free to 30,000 preschools across the country. In addition, we arranged for the fitness-focused "Teletubbies" episode to air in March on virtually every PBS station nationwide, reaching an even greater number of children. Our hope is that this annual event will continue to spread the word to millions of children in preschools and homes across the country.


Sadly, just one day before our national fitness initiative took place, a doctor told a nutrition forum in Australia that "Teletubbies" and other children's television characters "are helping to entrench poor messages that being fat and jolly are attributes to aspire to." Isn't this same description befitting of Santa Claus and Humpty Dumpty too? Are they next?

This criticism only serves to rob the serious issue of childhood obesity from the kind of positive attention it deserves and inaccurately places the blame on one of the few children's entertainment organizations dedicated to taking action against the problem. Rather than striving to make headlines for himself by slandering "Teletubbies," this doctor should be making earnest outreach to the itsy bitsy Entertainment Co., Ragdoll Ltd., the creators of "Teletubbies," and other like-minded companies to coordinate efforts and make some real progress in squashing this problem.

Childhood obesity is a crime, but who bears the brunt of the blame? Actually, the answer may be irrelevant. The truth is that Hollywood, together with caregivers and truly concerned medical professionals, can help reverse this potentially deadly trend. One thing is certain: The power of the image on the screen is such a formidable opponent, a caregiver simply cannot win the battle alone.


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