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Can He Build It? Yes, He Can!

Television* Stop-action animated 'Bob the Builder' has constructed a following among the preschool audience.

April 09, 2002|PETER JENSEN | BALTIMORE SUN

Luke Peters likes to play trains. He likes to swim and jump on the backyard trampoline. But if you really want to see this 2-year-old boy get happy, just start singing a certain TV theme song.

Bob the Builder. Can we fix it? Bob the Builder. Yes, we can!

Never heard of Bob the Builder and his sunny disposition? You probably don't have a preschooler in the house.

Bob is big, really big, with the sandbox set. His half-hour show can be seen on Nickelodeon's Nick Jr. lineup weekdays and Saturday mornings on CBS.

The show features Bob, a hard-hat-and-tool-belt-wearing construction worker, and his entourage of talking machines, from a digger named Scoop to the cement mixer Dizzy. He even has a human assistant, Wendy, with whom he talks a lot on his cell phone.

When "Bob's" on TV, Luke is just transfixed.

"Luke's OK with 'Barney' or the Teletubbies, but when 'Bob the Builder' comes on, he just starts screaming that song," said his mother, Joyce Peters of Stewarts- town, Pa. "It's the show he gets most excited about."

Shortly after it first aired on Britain's BBC One three years ago, the stop-action animated TV show featuring movable plastic figures became an overnight sensation in England. "Bob's" theme song, a catchy little ditty with a "yes, we can" lyric repeated over and over, turned into a best-selling single the following year.

Officials at HIT Entertainment, the British company that produces the show and now markets it in 180 countries, said the concept was relatively simple: Take heavy construction machines, which youngsters love, and turn them into characters who work together.

"What little boy doesn't own a truck?" said Holly Stein, HIT's senior vice president of global consumer products. "Now, it's a truck with a name and a personality. That's the icing on the cake."

In the world of commercial children's television, such tie-in opportunities are considered to be more than icing on the cake; they're a big chunk of the cake. Already, "Bob" has generated more than 600 products, from books and videos to plush figures, talking toys, a laptop computer, Lego building blocks, and on and on.

The show is not without its drawbacks, however. There is little of what producers call an "overt curriculum"--no lessons in reading, writing or arithmetic. That sets it apart from the more typical preschool fare as "Barney," "Sesame Street" or "Blue's Clues."

Nor does Bob live in a very diverse world: He and Wendy and all their human friends are white. And Wendy often seems to be more secretary than construction worker--hanging around the office while Bob is building.

But Johnson said the lack of diversity is acceptable in the context of a diverse Nick Jr. lineup. "Bob" is followed by such shows as "Little Bill," which is about a black family, and "Dora the Explorer," which features a Latina. The show's producers say "Bob" may be getting a black cast member next fall.

Still, "Bob" has something that many preschool shows don't: It's not so painful for an adult to watch it too.

"It's a cute program," said Sandra Calvert, a Georgetown University professor of psychology and occasional consultant to Nickelodeon. "And it teaches kids to act in a pro-social ways. His tools are his friends. I think that plays off children's imaginations quite nicely."

*

"Bob the Builder" can be seen weekdays at 9 a.m. on Nickelodeon and Saturdays at 7 a.m. on CBS.

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