Microsoft wants your children. Having achieved dominance of the adult software market, Bill Gates's eye has lit on the pre-schooler, on the get 'em young enough, keep 'em for life premiss. And Bill's thinking big: his initial pre-school tie-in is Barney the dinosaur.
Barney the who? If you haven't any children, chances are you haven't encountered Barney. Chances are that by the end of the year you will be tripping over him. A 6-ft tyrannosaurus, purple, with green spots and the giggle of Norman Wisdom, Barney has been the biggest pre-school TV character in the US since 1992, garnering audiences of 14 million each week: not bad for PBS. In the 10 years of his existence he has shifted 40 million videos and 35 million books, and gone double-platinum in pre- sales alone on his first music album. He has a permanent theme park at Universal Studios' Florida site, an 800,000-strong fan club and even an "I Hate Barney Secret Society": a sure sign of success.
On 26 March, Barney's Great Adventure, a movie with a $15m budget - peanuts compared to a James Cameron epic, but enough to make two Full Montys and still leave change for a memorable launch party - opened at New York's Radio City Music Hall. It opens here in the summer. Barney already has a foothold on these shores on early morning GMTV, and has shifted 1.5 million videos here. Microsoft's American hot tot toy is an interactive Barney with 2MB of memory, 2,000 phrases, 17 songs, 12 activities and Internet capacity - via, of course, Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Bill must be rubbing his anorak in glee.
The secret of Barney's success seems to have been bypassing the kids - after all, most children under five will be delighted by anything as long as the colours are bright enough - and going straight for parental neurosis about education. Barney, you see, is educational - designed by a former teacher, Sheryl Leach, and "carefully researched by a multicultural team of early childhood specialists".
While middle-class parents, newly literate in the vocabulary of child psychology, wring their hands about the supposed dumbing-down inherent in the Teletubbies (who have, of course, done an excellent job of getting tiny people to sit still and concentrate), the Barney marketing machine soothes with talk of "an ethnically diverse cast of children who have fun learning about positive concepts". Meanwhile, Drs Dorothy and Jerome Singer, psychologists at Yale University, have sung the praises of Barney as "nearly a model of what a pre-school programme should be, offering many opportunities for pre-schoolers to learn the skills necessary for their entrance into formal schooling".
So: babysitting without guilt. But what does the target audience think? I tried Barney out on Archie (just seven), Hector (three-and-a-half), Grace and Dougal (both 18 months). All four children were thoroughly aware of Barney through playground gossip; none had seen him before.
Open "Shapes and Colours" with a close-up of the plush and squashy Barney toy (from all good toy shops). All four sets of eyes are glued to the screen. Enter multicultural personalities: three little girls, one black, one white, one brown, and an older Wasp. Co-operation and respect are the bywords; no one interrupts, everyone gets to guess the answers. They're a sort of modern-day Von Trapp family.
Archie begins to twitch; Hector is glued into position with a gaping grin that echoes that of the dancing dinosaur. He stays that way throughout. Grace starts wandering around after six minutes, Dougal after nine, though when anyone sings, he rocks back and forth, slapping his shoe. A character called Baby Bop sings a song about her "blankey". So much for the Teletubbies' use of baby-talk. Grace eventually leaves the room altogether.
I think back to Playschool, The Herb Garden, Hector's House. They must have known about cognitive training back then, but was it all so earnest? You can't help but wonder whether the fabled Irony Bypass common to American culture might be a by-product of their children's programming. They sing, they dance, they make paintings without soiling their aprons; is it any wonder they're all in gangs by the time they reach their teens?
The participants line up to sing the closing song, a nauseating ditty to the tune of "This Old Man": "I love you, you love me, we're best friends as friends should be, with a great big hug and a kiss from me to you, won't you say you love me too".
Both older boys look indignant. "That's not how it goes," says Archie. "No," says Hector. "How does it go, then?"
They launch into the version of the song they've learned at school: "I hate you, you hate me, let's join up and kill Bar-ney, with a kick, a slap and a punch from me to you, please please say you hate me too".
It looks as though the Secret Society may have got here first.