The creators of "Sesame Street" are releasing a new line of videos Tuesday targeted for children as young as six months, outraging some child-development experts who feel no form of TV or video is suitable for kids under 2.
The DVDs — part of a series called "Sesame Beginnings" — are intended to be watched by parents along with their small children. Sesame Workshop developed the shows with help of experts from Zero to Three, a well-regarded nonprofit advocacy group.
Despite that prestigious partnership, the project has drawn fire from other experts who note that the American Academy of Pediatrics advises against TV viewing for children under 2. They fear the Sesame brand and Zero to Three's endorsement will convince many parents their infants would benefit from watching videos.
"There is no evidence that screen media is beneficial for babies and growing evidence it may be harmful," said the Boston-based Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. "'Sesame Beginnings' will encourage babies' devotion to TV characters that have been licensed to promote hundreds of other products."
There already is a huge market for videos aimed at infants: "Teletubbies" has been on the air for nearly a decade, sometimes drawing similar criticism, and The Walt Disney Co.'s Baby Einstein products are very lucrative.
Sesame Workshop had stayed out of this field, but says it now has found an effective way to promote interaction between parents and children under 2 — something its executives say other shows don't do well.
"We didn't go into this in an impulsive way," said Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop's vice president of education and research. "We wanted to invite the parent into the viewing situation, to give the adult information about child development."
Working toward that goal, the videos show characters such as Baby Elmo and Baby Big Bird with their parents or caregivers, going through daily routines like feeding and bedtime.
Truglio contends there is no scientific research justifying the "extreme recommendation" from the pediatrics academy to keep the youngest children away from TV.
"The reality is there's TV in 98 percent of all homes, and parents feel comfortable with it," she said. "We have to stop blaming parents, and create responsible content for them. ... The key is moderation. We're not advocating just plopping kids in front of a TV screen."
Psychologist Susan Linn, a co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said she was disappointed but not surprised that Sesame Workshop had developed the DVDs.
"They're a media company in the business of promoting their brand," she said. "They've done some good things for kids and they sell a lot of junk for kids."
Linn and her colleagues are even more upset by Zero to Three's role, saying the project has damaged its credibility.
"It's a shame to see a prominent public health organization get involved," Linn said. "People trust Sesame Workshop so much. To have the combination of that and Zero to Three — I think it's very likely that parents who have been hesitant will jump right in."
Zero to Three's executive director, Matthew Melmed, said he had no second thoughts about the partnership and accused Linn's group of misrepresenting the new DVDs.
"These are not 'baby videos' — these are DVDs designed to promote healthy parent-child interactions," he said. "Once people understand what this product is designed to do, the response has been favorable."
More than two-thirds of parents with kids under 2 already let them watch an average of two hours of TV a day, Melmed said. "What we're trying to do is meet parents in their daily reality, to help them do a better job in what is really the hardest job any person has," he said.
Dr. Kyle Pruett, a child development expert at Yale University and member of Zero to Three's board, initially was skeptical of the new videos but said his views changed as he thought of how to improve options for parents who already had decided to expose their small children to videos.
"These are the absolute antithesis of park-your-baby-in-front-of-the-TV kind of videos," he said. "They are thoughtful, informative — it's not a corporate campaign trying to draw kids into TV life."