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Barney is back, with new dinosaur buddy

Big purple one welcomes tiny orange Riff for 13th season on PBS
/ Source: The Associated Press

He's big, he's purple and he's not going anywhere.

Barney, the sugary sweet dinosaur loved by toddlers, is back for another season on public television, where he has been singing and dancing for 14 years.

There's a new twist to the old story, as well: The first new dinosaur to appear in 13 years on the Texas-based show will join the main character alongside the usual cast of adoring children.

The familiar strains of "I love you, you love me" will echo for many years to come if executive producer Karen Barnes has her way. Barnes sees a limitless future for the sappy reptile.

"It's an iconic character, part of the culture," she said. "We have a new audience every two or three years. What Barney teaches doesn't go out of style."

The new season that kicks off Monday adds a new splash of color, a tiny orange hadrosaur named Riff. The pint-sized cousin of Barney's pals BJ and Baby Bop loves music, showing his enjoyment when his crest blinks with colorful light.

Riff is also featured in a new direct-to-DVD release and will join the cast this fall in "Barney Live! The Let's Go Tour!"

"You don't want to continue doing the same things over and over. You want to keep it fresh," said Barnes, in her second year with the program. "I think a show that's been on this long, it's important that we add new elements."

Former teacher Sheryl Leach, who noted her 2-year-old son's fascination with dinosaurs at a museum exhibit, created the first Barney program, sold at video stores beginning in 1987. The show has aired on PBS since 1992.

HIT Entertainment acquired the company that produces "Barney," Allen-based Lyrick Studios, in 2001 for $275 million.

A beehive of activity
The program is produced in the Dallas suburb of Carrollton, inside an unadorned red brick building that bears no hint of the beehive of activity within.

Inside, carpenters hammer away on set designs, elaborate props are constructed, voices and sounds are recorded and dance routines are rehearsed. The child actors who perform with Barney even have their own classroom and teacher.

Barney really is two people, as are each of his dinosaur sidekicks.

The athletic Carey Stinson is the hopping, dancing person inside the 30-pound purple suit. The distinctive voice, locked away in a dark sound room above the parklike set, belongs to former Radio Disney Deejay Dean Wendt.

Wendt, who came on board in 2001, says he enjoys the anonymity of his role. But he also treasures opportunities to surprise children and adults by unleashing his giggly Barney voice.

"The interaction with the kids is just priceless," said Wendt.

He and Stinson work so closely together that they can engage in impromptu conversation with a visitor — as Barney — without missing a beat.

"I'm a firm believer that if you can imagine it, it will happen, so this fits for me, this job," Wendt said.

Barney's popularity has declined from a decade ago, but the show still consistently ranks among the top 20 among all children's programs, including PBS broadcast and cable outlets.

"We know what our target audience loves," Barnes said. "We know that moms love us."

Barney evokes strong emotionsThere is no dispute that Barney evokes strong reactions from children and adults. Musical director Joe Phillips said he's seen adults seemingly making fun of the live show, then reaching over and hugging their children at the end.

"It's nice to do something in which you see the effects. It's meaningful," he said.

The huggable T-rex has found himself the object of increasing derision over the years by some who find his act a bit too sweet. Many anti-Barney sites have been launched on the Internet.

Others question what young children are getting out of the program.

"It's sweet, but it lies. It tells them that he loves them. I don't want my children thinking love is what you get from a guy on TV," said Angela Harms, a Eugene, Ore., mother of four who maintains an anti-Barney Web page.

Harms says on her Web page that "the kids on Barney & Friends would follow him off a cliff, if he sang a snappy song."

The people who produce the show appear blissfully unaware that not everyone finds the dinosaur "tee-rific!"

Barnes, who once worked for the Jim Henson Company, said criticism comes with the territory when you've been around as long as Barney has.

Mary Ann Dudko, HIT's vice president for content development, acts as the principal advocate for young children for the telecast. She calls the show's educational value the best on TV and cites supportive studies conducted by Yale researchers Jerome and Dorothy Singer.

The show emphasizes age-appropriate material such as sharing and caring for others, and the new character, Riff, will introduce music from around the world to the preschooler audience. The sounds will draw from diverse influences, including Latin, classical, country, jazz and rock.

"This is the time they need to learn how to get along in the broader world," Dudko said. "There's plenty of time to develop individualism."