Hey, Baby, Who’s the Puppet?
Eebee Takes On a Lucrative but Controversial Market: Videos for the Diaper Set
Eebee, star of the home-DVD series “Eebee’s Adventures,” doesn’t sing, dance or say much on screen. And that’s what his creators hope will make him a rock star with their target viewers—babies younger than 2 and their parents.
A full-body puppet the size of a 1-year-old, with spiky hair and an easy-to-pronounce name, Eebee laughs and makes baby sounds on screen. He (the character is officially gender-neutral) also plays with Cheerios, rolls a ball, takes laundry out of a basket and interacts with real-life babies and their moms and dads.
Eebee marks one of the most ambitious approaches in years to the potentially lucrative but controversy-studded market of home videos for babies. The creators, New York-based Every Baby Company LLC (for which Eebee is named), want parents to watch the 10- to 15-minute episodes with their babies and imitate the activities they see. Parents need advice on how to interact with their child, says co-founder Stephen Gass, whose career includes stints as head of product development for Viacom‘s new media group and president of the online division at Sesame Workshop, the maker of “Sesame Street.” “Most parents are going to deplete their peekaboo repertoire pretty quickly,” Mr. Gass says. “What do you do then? Our goal was to be a catalyst for real-world play.”
Many parents monitor and limit their children’s “screen time,” though, and pediatricians frown upon any video-watching by babies. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently discourages television-viewing by children under 2 (the policy is under review). “The evidence is not there to support that [videos] are developmentally appropriate or educational for this age group,” says Ari Brown, a pediatrician in Austin, Texas, and a member of the academy’s communications and media council. Studies comparing how young children learn from a parent versus video find “a video deficit,” she adds. “Children will always learn better from the live presentation.”
In recent years, critics such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston nonprofit that aims to restrict corporate marketing to children, have taken on the baby-video sector, including the popular Baby Einstein series, whose videos feature music, sounds and animal hand puppets. Activists complained to regulators about the series’ implied educational benefits and the potential harms of video-viewing by the very young. Regulators didn’t take action. Last year, parent company Walt Disney Co. offered refunds to Baby Einstein DVD customers, saying it did so under a long-standing customer-satisfaction guarantee. It continues to sell Baby Einstein videos and toys.
Even so, Every Baby is venturing ahead with a video series it says has a positive influence on parent-child playtime. Content does matter in children’s video, Eebee’s makers say, and video watched by babies and parents together can have a far more beneficial effect than video used as an electronic babysitter.
U.S. sales of DVDs and Blu-ray discs for kids declined 3% to $400 million in 2009, excluding full-length feature films, and they are expected to shrink further as alternatives such as on-demand TV and videogames proliferate, according to Screen Digest, a London media analysis company. Still, sales of kids’ video have been more stable than the rest of the DVD market. The “electronic babysitter phenomenon is really convenient,” says Jan Saxton, senior film analyst. “We think it’s going to be one of the categories that has a long life in packaged video.”
Every Baby has recently increased retail distribution, with Eebee DVDs, dolls and books currently sold at Nordstrom stores, Barnes & Noble and some 500 toy stores. The company wants to double sales in 2010 to $2 million.
Two more DVDs are in the works, and Every Baby has extended the Eebee brand to books and toys, including a plush doll and, for 2011, “baby adventure kits” designed to help with sand play and other parent-child activities. Two Eebee smart-phone applications are in the works for next year.
To create Eebee, Mr. Gass worked with Don Burton, a former head of business development at Disney’s educational publishing unit. The two observed young children at play at Mr. Burton’s A-Ha! Learning Center in New York, with “play labs” and “open-ended materials” such as water, light or shadows. “We got a much better idea of what material intrigued kids,” Mr. Burton says. The two derived much of Eebee’s actions from what they saw the real kids do.
Other marketers have tried similar approaches to video content for babies. In 2006, Sesame Workshop launched “Sesame Beginnings,” a home-video series featuring baby versions of Elmo and Cookie Monster at play with adult characters. The premise was “to model parent-child interaction,” says Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop vice president for education and research. After four releases, Sesame Workshop ended production of the series in 2007.
Whether experts like it or not, plenty of babies watch television. A 2007 University of Washington study found that by three months of age, some 40% of children watch TV or DVDs regularly. “There are a lot of videos out there, so we have almost gone beyond the question of whether they are good or bad, and onto how people are using them,” says Rachel Barr, associate professor of psychology at Georgetown University.
At a recent children’s book-signing in New York’s Central Park, 18-month-old Lucas Novembre-Barbosa had his photo taken with Eebee. Lucas loves the DVDs, says his mother, Cathy, 37, an assistant kindergarten teacher. “Ever since I’ve put it on, he’s been hooked,” Ms. Novembre-Barbosa says. She watches the videos with her son and has borrowed ideas, such as emptying cereal into plastic containers for him to play with. “I think they’re good in moderation,” she says.
Write to Anjali Athavaley at firstname.lastname@example.org