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TV Preview: Move over 'Teletubbies,' the 'Boohbahs' are here

Sunday, January 18, 2004

By Karen MacPherson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

They're five rotund bundles of silliness on a serious mission: to inspire young children to dance, jump and bounce as they watch television.

"Boohbah"

When: 2:30 weekdays on WQED.
Creator: Anne Wood.

They're the "Boohbahs," stars of a new kids' television show premiering tomorrow on PBS stations around the country. "Boohbah" is the brainchild of Anne Wood, a 65-year-old British woman who won worldwide fame and fortune several years ago as the creator of "Teletubbies."

With her new show, Wood uses the weirdly-winning "Boohbahs" to bolster preschoolers' brains and bodies with a combination of computer technology, fantasy and humor.

While subtly teaching young viewers skills like problem-solving, the show's main goal is to encourage children's innate joy of movement, Wood said in a recent telephone interview from her office in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England. "The 'Boohbahs' are not meant to be characters like the 'Teletubbies.' They are meant to represent atoms of energy," Wood said. "I would ideally have liked them to be perfectly round, but since they are played by actors and need to dance, I couldn't quite do that!"

"Boohbah" began airing in Great Britain last spring, and has become a hit with preschoolers. Cuddly versions of the five "Boohbahs" -- Humbah, Jingbah, Jumbah, Zing Zing Zingbah and Zumbah -- were among the top toys sold in Britain over Christmas.

Wood stresses that "Boohbah" is designed to encourage interaction with young viewers. Nothing happens in the show unless children (on the show's soundtrack) say the magic word "Boohbah!" The idea is to help build children's self-confidence, she added.

As the show opens, voices of children on the show's soundtrack call the "Boohbahs" out of their computer-enhanced, glowing "Boohball" nest. The "Boohbahs," each a different color, then perform a simple exercise routine, making encouraging -- sometimes even rudely funny -- noises to get young viewers to do the same.

Later in the show, there's a similar effort to get viewers up and moving during a segment spotlighting real children showing off their skills at hopping and dancing as they shout "Look what I can do!"

"Boohbah" also features the "Storypeople," including Brother, Sister, Auntie, Mr. Man, Mrs. Lady, Grandmamma, Grandpapa and Little Dog Fido. Played by real actors, the "Storypeople" are two-dimensional characters who need children's help to solve simple puzzles, like figuring out how to use a jump rope.

Wood realizes that some people might scoff at the idea that television -- blamed as one major cause of increasing childhood obesity -- might also be part of the solution.

"But we have not shown this to any child who hasn't gotten up and moved when they've watched the show," she said. Wood added that her production company, Ragdoll, did extensive test-marketing among children as "Boohbah" was developed. Because of that, Wood, a former teacher, is confident in the show's appeal to children ages 3 through 6.

John Wilson, the senior vice president of programming at PBS, believes "Boohbah" is "something pretty special." Wilson said PBS officials are particularly interested in the way the show can help address the childhood obesity issue.

"Look at how it engages kids and motivates them to keep moving," he said in a telephone interview. "It's absolutely unique. It's not derived from anything else."

Wilson said 82 percent of PBS affiliates have signed up to air the first 20 episodes of "Boohbah." Most stations will show it Monday through Friday in the morning, when preschoolers are most likely to be watching television, he said.

In addition, PBS has a Web site -- -- devoted to "Boohbah," where children and their parents can go to extend the show's activities and fun, Wilson said. Wood's company, meanwhile, has partnered with Hasbro, the toy company, and Scholastic books to produce an upcoming line of toys and books based on "Boohbah."

Asked where she came up with the name "Boohbah," Wood said she searched for a "nonsense" word with two syllables to match the sing-song chant of parents around the world as they call their children.

"I was also looking for sounds that most children anywhere in the world could say," she added. "I just came up with 'Boohbah.' I didn't think it meant anything at all, but I've recently been told that it's a Yiddish word for grandmother. So 'Boohbahs' are flying Jewish grandmothers!"

While "Boohbah" is filled with silliness, Wood said there are years of serious thought about early childhood development behind the show. "When children can be silly, they are confident about their ability to do things," she said. "We want children to grow up to be resilient, to feel that they can solve problems themselves," Wood said.


Karen MacPherson can be reached at kmacpherson@nationalpress.com or 1-202-662-7075.

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