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Dumb or not? Nations battle over Teletubbies

Nations were split down the middle yesterday, not on whether to bomb Iraq, but on the merits of the Teletubbies.

Debate became heated at the second World Summit on Television for Children when a delegate who accused Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po of "dumbing down" kids around the globe was shot down in very undiplomatic language.

Ada Haug, head of pre-school programmes with NRK in Norway, was dismissed as an "ignorant slut" by another speaker, Alice Cahn, director of children's programmes with the American public broadcasting service, PBS.

Ms Haug criticised the commercialism of the BBC's hit series, whose set, characters and initial storylines are reported to have cost the corporation pounds 8.5m to establish. "Teletubbies is the most market-orientated children's programme I've ever seen in my life," said the Scandinavian television executive.

She also criticised the constant repetition, the poor plots and the fact that the series had no sense of place. "No wonder the series is proving so popular on the world's commercial channels," she hissed.

Ms Cahn, who acquired the series for PBS, was having none of this. "To suggest that Teletubbies signals a dumbing down is ludicrous," she shot back. "It's the most old-fashioned but new-fangled programme for young children I've ever seen."

To the shock of many of the audience in the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster Ms Cahn then called Ms Haug an "ignorant slut". Later it was explained that this was not as rude as it may have sounded, being a reference to a line from a popular US television programme (although no one in the press gallery was able to establish which show).

Anne Wood, the creator of Teletubbies, later welcomed the fact that the public debate stirred up by the series had now assumed an international dimension. The creative director of Ragdoll productions said: "I know people would like to make a wax image of me and stick pins in it. But children have a right to enjoy themselves."

She argued that programmes for young children were not designed to be an answer for the world's ills. Those aimed at pre-school youngsters should be a mirror of their own lives and a window to the experiences of other children.

She acknowledged that some delegates might not be able to identify with the green grass of Tubbyland, and said she would be honoured to use film footage from abroad.

Research into the effects of the programme on children had shown it was "entirely positive ... It helps them to develop speech and those having difficulties are helped by it".

She was backed up by Roy Thompson, of Children's BBC, who said that the impact of the show had been closely monitored: "When parents get together to talk about the programme they noticed how effective it had been," he said. "It appears as entertaining, but they are gaining things from it."

That view was challenged by Patricia Edgar, head of the Children's Television Foundation in Australia and organiser of the first world summit on children's television three years ago, who claimed the series was regressive for children "beyond the babbling stage".

Television executives, along with politicians and other decision-makers at the week-long summit, were invited to watch a screening of Teletubbies to make up their own minds.