Can the Teletubbies save the world?
It’s a ridiculous question — The “Teletubbies” show, featuring group of multi-coloured toddler aliens made for pre-school children by the BBC, has been mostly forgotten since its fame in the late 1990s, with no new episodes since 2001 — and yet …
In the U.K. politicians still see the show and others like it as important tool for soft power. Just today, Jim Shannon, an MP from Northern Ireland, called a motion to support attempts to broadcast “Teletubbies” in North Korea, one of the most closed societies on Earth. Shannon said that showing “Teletubbies” and other BBC shows in North Korea could “open up life for millions of people in that country.”
Shannon, who told the BBC he didn’t watch the show himself, didn’t have this idea out of the blue. For example, just recently the U.K. state broadcaster was having serious discussions about whether to extend its BBC World Service radio program into the Koreas. Late last year the Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on North Korea, Lord Alton of Liverpool, told NK News that he was pushing for the World Service to be broadcast from South Korea so that those in the North could hear it (an immediate expansion was later ruled out, however). What’s more, there’s been a number of reports in the British press that a deal could be struck to sell some BBC TV shows to North Korea’s state broadcaster, though most sources in the U.K.’s foreign office stress that talks are in very early stages.
It may sound silly, but in other countries an expansion of BBC service has coincided with an improvement in relations with the West. An obvious example is Myanmar, where in December 2012, shortly after President Barack Obama’s historic visit, the BBC began broadcasting news, children’s shows, and other entertainment in the country. It was seen as a natural successor to the BBC Burma Service, which had broadcast in the notoriously closed country since 1940.
“I’m so pleased that the BBC is now able to take the next step forward with the country to offer that same impartial news via television as well,” Peter Horrocks, director of global news, said at the time. “It is a great sign of progress for Burma and I’m honored for the BBC to play a role in opening the country up to the world.”
The BBC has had a lot of success with its shows abroad — “Sherlock” was a surprising hit in China, for example — and the Teletubbies themselves make a lot of sense as an international export, given that the Teletubbies themselves are not of any discernible ethnicity, and their baby babble way of talking doesn’t really sound much like any recognisable language. The show has already been exported to at least 120 countries and its narration has been translated into at least 45 languages, and while there was a little bit of controversy — including outrage in the U.S. and Poland about the possibility that Tinky Winky, who is purple and carries a handbag, could be gay — the show was widely praised.
So, can the Teletubbies help save North Korea? It’s worthwhile remembering that Kim Jong-un spent a good amount of his childhood in Europe, and he hass shown an inclination to reliving those years — be it by inviting his basketball heroes to North Korea or staging Disney-inspired musicals (though he’s a little too old to remember the Teletubbies). This is both a good sign and a bad sign: the appearance of Goofy in Pyongyang didn’t stop Kim from having his own uncle executed, and the less said about Dennis Rodman’s basketball diplomacy the better.
What’s important about the BBC’s hopes for North Korea is that they are not aimed at changing the hearts and minds of the North Korean leadership — they are aimed at the average citizen. North Korea has already had to change its message about living standards in South Korea thanks to illegal DVDs of South Korean soaps that make their way over the border. If the Teletubbies (or, for that matter, Sherlock or Doctor Who) can make a broad impression on the general public in North Korea, than perhaps the West can benefit too. Sure, it’ll be an incremental change, but that’s how soft power works.
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