Making Brain Candy TV a Healthy Treat


Gus and Gunnar are now blissfully past the little kids’ TV phase.  I remember the horrors of Oobi, a group of talking hands with eyes on a finger ring speaking only in the 3rd person.  Of course, it was Gunnar’s absolute favorite, so much so that I was not only forced to listen to the cavity-inducing dialogue every day, but he insisted on playing Oobi games online as well.  The games did help him with rudimentary counting, so I was okay with that, but the choice of “baby talk” grammar is, I have no doubt, responsible for every gray hair in my head today.

In this age where networks and PBS compete with cable channels like Sprout, Nick Jr., and Disney Junior compete not only for viewers, but more important to their bottom lines, for merchandise customers, my mind normally goes to the worst case scenario as TV executives look to maximize the “Mom, I want one!” by appealing to the most base and vacuous instincts of our kids.

Disney: We even know how to make a bloody bandage cute!

And that would seem to be exactly the tradition that the new Disney Show Doc McStuffins would be in.  Aimed at the 2-5 set that the American Academy of Pediatrics says is better off without TV anyway, McStuffins is about a little girl who plays doctor on her stuffed animals.  From my understanding of the show, there is no real discussion of biology or anatomy, and none of the problem-solving or language-building skills you find in a show like Dora the Explorer.  It was intended as pure, unadulterated fluff.

That is, until a TV executive got hold of it.

In this article in the New York Times, the story of what changed Doc McStuffins is told:

Chris Nee, who created “Doc McStuffins,” said, “Disney, to its complete credit, looked at my pitch and suggested that we make the characters African-American.” Her original Doc McStuffins was a little white girl.

Gary Marsh, the president and chief creative officer of Disney Channels Worldwide, said “Doc McStuffins” reflects a type of hypersensitivity to the power of television on young viewers. “What we put on TV can change how kids see the world, and that is a responsibility that I take very seriously,” he said. “By showcasing different role models and different kinds of families we can positively influence sociological dynamics for the next 20 years.”

In addition to the fact that the characters are predominantly black, it is the Mother who is the role-model doctor, and the Dad is a stay-at-home who is the primary caretaker to the star (something near-and-dear to this Dad’s heart).  This formula has won Doc McStuffins huge kudos in the online community, including a “We Are Doc McStuffins” Facebook page with the faces of female doctors around the country.  And, more importantly to Disney, sales of Doc McStuffins toys are selling briskly.

You never know who a silly little show might influence.

What I find most interesting about this is that, like Martin Luther King Jr. expressly telling Nichelle Nichols to stay on the bridge of the Enterprise even though she was often no more than a glorified secretary in the original Star Trek, true meaning and importance from television can come from more than just words.  From Uhura to Doc McStuffins, our entertainment can, perhaps more than any other medium, help to carry the kind of color-blind messaging that our culture needs to move beyond ignorant bias.

McStuffins itself also shows that such moves are in no way a sacrifice for a corporation, but instead a potential boon.  It seems the show’s merchandise is selling well across cultural lines, just as that little Latina, Dora the Explorer has.  So not only is multiculturalism a way to teach King’s timeless lesson about not the color of the skin, but content of character, but it is a way to create brand differentiation that can actually help build a commercial market.  In conflict partnership terms, that’s a “win-win.”

Hopefully this success will breed more and more copycats, lending more significance to the saccharine of toddler TV.  So long as they don’t try to stick eye-rings on a rainbow of talking hands, that is.


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