We Love You, We Hate You
The temperature approached 100 degrees, but the hundreds of children and parents stood firm in a sweaty and noisy three-block-long line outside KD Studio in Dallas. The children were all trying to land a role in the upcoming season of Barney & Friends, the long-running program on public television. The parents smiled at a photographer and pinched a smile from their children. They'll sweat with a smile if it gives them a chance for a piece of Barney.
Other people want a piece of Barney, too, but not at a casting call. These other people don't love Barney. They hate him. Some have hated Barney since he first showed up on national television in the early 1990s. Just like the new little fans that Barney keeps enticing to the television year after year, the ranks of those who hate Barney also have remained strong. To protect Barney's wholesome image (and impressionable toddlers) HIT Entertainment (formerly Lyrick Studios) lawyers regularly shut down Web sites and stop other Barney bashing with lawsuits or threats of lawsuits.
In cyberspace, Barney is called "The Dark Lord," Satan (by someone who can prove it with a mathematical formula) and other even more derogatory things. Some say they want Barney dead and have hundreds of ideas about how to do the deed. A couple of suggestions include giving Barney a nitroglycerin suppository or having him bungee jump with a real rope wrapped around his neck.
The "Kill Barney" site says, "Kill Barney. Big fat loser. Child abuser. Likes to touch her. Get your hands off her!"
"Barney, Barney, stab him in the eye. Barney, Barney, he's going to die."
"Kill Barney. He's got no friends. He just pretends. He's a sex machine and a sexy drag queen."
The "Anti-Barney League" (also known as the "ABL") describes itself as "a group of people united in a single goal. Be scared Barney...It is time that we must unite against a force that is covering our nation like a dark cloud. Barney is evil."
To the disappointment of critics, nearly 10 years after joining the likes of Big Bird and Mr. Rogers on public television, the Dallas-produced Barney is still hop, hop, hopping along. In fact, during the last decade, Barney's profitability has become as fixed as his unsettling grin. New toddlers continue to discover Barney, and his valuable base of toddler product tie-ins such as diapers and toys continues to grow. Commercial licenses number 208 at the last count. More than 65 million Barney videos and more than 100 million Barney books in a variety of languages have been sold, and Barney has television contracts in more than 100 countries. Commercial licenses earned Barney's owners $177 million during the last nine years, a HIT Entertainment spokeswoman says. In the United States, Barney & Friends is seen on 320 public television stations, and the show has an average audience of 6 million. Our homegrown Barney has slowly entered the realm of stalwart icons with staying power, something known in the business as an "evergreen" property like Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Bugs Bunny.
At the HIT corporate headquarters in Allen, the black, lifeless eyes of hundreds of stuffed purple Barneys silently watch employees from the tops of desks and cubicles and floors and walls and filing cabinets. Like the children who look up to Barney, the corporate "family" at HIT loves Barney, and Barney is on a roll again. Lyrick Studios just this year was purchased by the British HIT corporation for $275 million, and the show is tooling up for another long run on PBS with Dallas production set to begin this fall and shows possibly to run until 2007. Although the studio doesn't make money from airing on PBS, the exposure keeps Barney in front of new fans who, it's assumed, will want to buy new things from Barney's massive product line. Love him or hate him, it looks like Barney is here to stay.
Is that bad?
One of the actors who wore the Barney suit for the Barney & Friends stage show that toured in North America and parts of Europe in the late 1990s says the production company hired roadies who had moved equipment and set up stages for big-name groups such as the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. The actor, who didn't want his name used (being one of the guys in the Barney suit apparently isn't a big selling point for an actor), says Barney regularly played to sold-out shows, and Barney's reception was always the same.
"The roadies said that right when Barney jumped out at the beginning was the loudest they had ever heard a crowd...even louder than the Stones," he says. "It was loud, dude, real loud."
Barney wouldn't have been such a big hit a decade earlier. Back then, the only widely recognized purple dinosaur was Dino from The Flintstones. For the uninitiated (you gotta be kidding), Barney is a 6-foot purple and green dinosaur character that appears to be made out of foam rubber. Previous episodes of Barney & Friends were set in a faux classroom with four or five children who appear to be between 7 and 10 years old. When the children "use their imagination," a toy Barney becomes the real Barney. Then, with Barney's help, the children dance and sing and go on imaginary adventures that involve numbers or letters or important life lessons like when it's OK to hug a dinosaur.
Sheryl Leach, a former teacher and Barney's creator, says she thought up Barney because there was nothing of value for her 2-year-old on home video. In 1988, Leach began independently distributing her Barney videos to toy stores and video stores "one at time," the official Barney story says. Slowly, Barney began filling the ranks of his massive midget army.
"As parents began discovering Barney videos, calls and letters started rolling in describing how their children were cuddling Barney video boxes," the story goes.
Barney's big break came in 1991, when the 4-year-old daughter of a programming executive at Connecticut Public Broadcasting System saw an episode of Barney on a rented Barney videotape. His daughter's reaction (a fixed and vacant stare, most likely) was enough to get Barney a PBS television contract, and by spring of 1992, Barney was on national television. Even though Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers are targeting the same audience, ages 2 to 5, PBS execs at stations all over the United States correctly figured there was room for Barney.
Barney soon became a well-known and recognizable public figure, and the studio and Leach started dealing with all the crap that fame brings.
A woman named Barbara Jo Lindsey sued what would become Lyrick Studios claiming she, not Leach, really invented Barney. In a lawsuit filed in the mid-1990s and apparently concluded last year, Lindsey claimed she told a business consultant about the Barney idea and that the consultant told Leach.
"I conceived and attempted to develop a line of merchandise centered around a smiley purple and green dinosaur character named Barney the Dinosaur. The character I conceived was virtually identical to the one that is marketed today," her lawsuit says.
Lyrick officials were forced to give depositions, but Denise Perkins-Landry, HIT spokeswoman, says Lindsey "was not able to come up with any evidence whatsoever that could substantiate a lawsuit."
Lindsey declined comment.
Like flesh-and-blood celebs, Barney also suffered the occasional embarrassing misstep. In the summer of 1997, the Barney costume filled with smoke when a cooling fan shorted out. The actor in the suit said he smelled smoke but thought it was in the studio, not inside Barney.
"I didn't realize what was going on at first. Not until I ran off stage because I couldn't breathe anymore," the same Barney actor who did not want to be named says. "I looked around to see if anything was burning outside. I just went on until I couldn't breathe anymore."
The actor suffered from smoke inhalation but was otherwise unharmed. By 1997, Barney was a big name, and the story was circulated far and wide here and in Europe.
Then there was the time that Barney books went out to his adoring public with a photograph of a bare-breasted woman leaning over a man. A Springfield, Massachusetts, mother told a newspaper reporter that she was disturbed to learn that her young sons had spotted the naked lady in Barney's Sing-Along Songs. The Chinese printer had erroneously used a roll of scrap paper that was left over from an old job, which was an "astrology romance guide" bound for Norway, one news report says.
At least the bare breasts were a mistake. In another well-publicized incident, a Barney singalong video went out to journalists with Barney "cursing a blue streak," a report said. A jokester apparently thought it would be funny to replace Barney's dialogue with "inappropriate language." Lyrick executives didn't think it was so funny. They seized the master tape and restored Barney's voice.
Barney bashing was a problem, too. It started almost as soon as Barney went on the air. The attacks became so bad so fast that in the fall of 1993 Barney traveled to Washington, D.C., to plead with the national press to leave him alone. Actually, because Barney's voice comes from a guy outside the Barney suit, Leach is the one who pleaded. She "delivered a speech with a clear message: Quit picking on the dinosaur!" one report said. Judging by the years of Barney bashing that followed, Leach and Barney both wasted their time.
Sitting in a meeting room at HIT in Allen, Perkins-Landry (who on this day wears a purple blouse) says that Barney, like Teletubbies and other nation-sweeping products or icons, is a natural target because he is so good and so popular.
"If you're big and you're really pure, you are going to get targeted," she says. The same thing happened to Sesame Street's Big Bird and Mr. Rogers, Perkins-Landry says. The difference is that those characters have been around so long that harsh criticisms eventually faded.
There are more than 350 ways to kill Barney, according to a couple of lists posted on the Internet. Those who created the sites don't say why they want Barney dead. They just include lists of gratifying ways of killing him, such as having him "Dipped in liquid nitrogen, and 'accidentally' pummeled with a baseball bat," "Sending him to inspect an underground nuclear test site, minutes before the next test," "Cutting off his arms and saying, 'Where's that big hug now?' and "Telling him there are kids around the corner and when he comes around hack into him with a machete."
The Anti-Barney League doesn't necessarily want Barney dead, but, like others, the league has a serious problem with what Barney is supposed to be.
"Barney is said to be some guy in a big foam rubber dinosaur suit. Several things about this theory don't add up. For one thing, Barney has full mobility," reads the group's Web site.
"Remember Big Bird? Did you ever notice how only one of his hands ever did anything and the other was always clutching his stomach like he was about to puke up gizzard stones? That's because Big Bird was a guy in a suit. That other hand was operating his beak.
"Barney, however, has two fully functional arms, a working mouth and large, moving, cowlike eyes. If a man is in there, he's no ordinary man."
One site, which shows Barney in the center of crosshairs, asks, "Is your child Barney-Addicted? Is your family Barney Dysfunctional?" The site recommends parents meditate to the "Barney Serenity Prayer."
"God, grant me the serenity to accept my child's addiction, the courage to change the channel, and the wisdom to not buy into the Lyons Group's [pre-Lyrick and HIT] multi-million dollar marketing plan."
Another site called "Proof That Barney Is Actually Satan" says Barney is Satan because if you take the phrase "cute purple dinosaur" and extract the Roman numerals (remembering that the Romans used 'v' for 'u') and then add up the numbers, the sum you get is 666, the sign of Satan.
Some who are doing the bashing are younger, like Jonathan McClure of North Dakota, who is 15 and in junior high school. McClure, who is among the new ranks of Barney haters, posted his own "Anti-Barney Page," which lists a bunch of facts and myths about Barney. One myth, he says, is that Barney is a nice guy.
"Fact: The guy under Barney's suit hates kids, and would snap the neck of every kid in the show if he weren't paid so much money," his site says.
McClure, who says he tried to stop his little sister from watching Barney, says what he dislikes is the "mushiness" of Barney's shows.
"Barney loves you. Barney loves Baby Bop [Barney's pint-sized dinosaur friend]. When you hear the phrase, 'I love you,' out of Barney's mouth for the sixth time in a row, you pretty much get fed up with it," he says.
Others aren't so young or new to Barney bashing, but they are still annoyed that Barney & Friends is on the air. Brian Bull, a broadcast journalist in South Dakota, has been down on Barney for years, he says. He is one of those whose Web site, called the "Purple Abyss," caught the attention of Barney's lawyers. Bull had posted a series of stories portraying Barney as an evil clown who was harmless on the outside but really a demon bent on world domination on the inside. The lawyers, he says, contacted him and said the anti-Barney messages needed to be removed.
"For me, that was simply a way to vent against a children's show character that I just found generally insipid and repulsive," he says.
"I guess the other slam for me is that when you think of dinosaurs, you think of these huge towering, scaly, clawed creatures that roamed and ruled the world millions of years ago, just fantastic creatures that you can appreciate on many different levels. There was something cool about them for anyone," Bull says. "And then to be confronted with this purple, doughy, lobotomized caricature...He's singing and doing all these bubbly sprightly things and is just perpetually overdosed on Prozac. I mean there is something really grating to people who held dinosaurs in such high regard and also held children's programming in such high regard."
Bull's site doesn't display the evil Barney stories anymore, thanks to threats from lawyers.
HIT's official line is that the company is trying to protect its "intellectual property from unauthorized use."
"No one company or Web site is being singled out under this program," a statement from HIT says. "The company's priority is to address sites that contain violent or pornographic material, as Barney's target audience is children ages 2 to 5."
The Reverend Joseph Chambers, of the Paw Creek Ministries in Charlotte, North Carolina, has preached against Barney's evils for years, and he has no intention of stopping just because Barney appears to be here for the duration. Chambers, who published a pamphlet called Barney, "The Purple Messiah," says he's not necessarily anti-Barney, he's just trying to educate parents "about the damage of that kind of entertainment."
"When you mix captivating entertainment, catchy songs and emotionally satisfying music with a message that glorifies the creator of all of it; you have the making of a cult," his pamphlet says in part. "Barney has become the leader of a children's cult. If he were teaching the values of Christianity, our American media would have already gone crazy with the attack. But Barney's teachings are politically correct, so his inventors can laugh all the way to the bank."
Chambers, who also has spoken out against other popular works such as Pokemon and the Harry Potter book series, says Barney has an "undercurrent of witchcraft."
"There are different things on the Barney show that are questionable," he says. "He does some séances. In one place they conjure up a woman that is dead, and she appears, poof, you know, like a magical appearance of a witch."
Perkins-Landry says Chambers' "séance" is probably the scenes in the early videos when children held hands in a circle and sang songs. As far as bringing someone back from the dead, she hasn't got a clue what Chambers is talking about.
"There is nothing like that in any of them," she says. "In fact, Barney doesn't do magic at all. Barney is always based around a child using his imagination....We're very careful. We're also very cognizant that children come from all religious backgrounds so we stay nonreligious...We're nonsatanic."
The San Diego Chicken is another story. Barney sued the popular sports mascot in 1997 after the bird started pounding a Barney imitator during games. During the offending routine, the mascot would break-dance with the fake Barney, and when the fake Barney busted better moves than the bird, the beating would begin. Barney would end up getting thrown into the dugout. Barney's owners tried to get Ted Giannoulas, the chicken, to stop doing the routine, but he refused, saying his dinosaur was different from Barney.
"The last straw for us came last summer at a Texas Rangers game, when the Chicken was doing that part where he hits the Barney-like character," Kelly Lane, a Barney spokeswoman told the San Diego Union-Tribune at the time. "The camera panned the audience, and there were a couple of kids obviously very upset."
Perkins-Landry says children were crying because they thought Barney was being hurt. Giannoulas ended up winning the right to bash Barney because, a judge said, the act was a parody and not a trademark infringement.
At a North Texas day care recently, four toddler-age children sat on the floor with crossed legs staring vacantly and silently at a small television screen where their favorite purple dinosaur has just appeared, hop, hop, hopping around in his fake classroom. Barney enthusiastically says, "Super-dee-dooper!" and other things inane to an adult listener.
You can wave your hand in front of the toddlers' eyes, but they just keep staring straight ahead at the television. They love Barney, and Barney loves them. It's what Barney tells them to do.
They are mesmerized until Barney sings his trademark song, "I love you. You love me. We're a happy fam-i-lee" and (after the promotional trailers for other Barney videos, of course) the video ends. Once they come out of the trance, the kids will poke at the VCR if they can get to it, or they'll go find another Barney video in its white plastic case and hold it up to you. They want to watch again. And again. And again.
HIT estimates that a child will watch a single Barney video up to 45 times, and that's bad, right? Not according to a couple of Yale University researchers who spent most of the last decade studying Barney and its effect on children. Unbelievably to some adults, they found that Barney is good. Each episode has dozens and dozens of "teaching moments" per episode. Jerome Singer, a psychology professor at Yale University and co-director of the university's Family Television Research and Consultation Center, along with wife, Dorothy, have been a part of more than 10 Barney studies. The center's studies (funded at first by Barney's owners but later by Connecticut public television grants) have consistently found that Barney promotes healthy behaviors and improves cognitive skills in children under 5.
"The first question that was raised was...is there any value at all to Barney, or is it just worthless?...We asked is there teaching material in Barney. By that I mean material that would be relevant to the whole array of readiness to learn needs of a child moving from pre-school into elementary school."
The study focused on five areas including cognitive learning (like new vocabulary), social skills, health and safety education, music and multicultural awareness, he says. Researchers went to 25 different pre-schools throughout the country to test Barney's effect on children's behaviors and skills. What they found surprised them initially.
"Compared to a control group who didn't see the shows but saw other things, the kids that watched the Barney show did show improvement over their previous performance," he says. "Then when we showed the same material to the control group kids later on, they also showed improvements."
That doesn't mean an overdose of Barney is necessarily good. In fact, most pediatricians recommend against much more than 30 minutes of television a day for those between 2 and 5 and none for those younger than 2. Singer says real life usually has more to offer than television.
"Children have so much to learn about the physical and real world around them," Singer says. "They have to be playing; they have to be engaging in their own spontaneous playing--touching things, feeling things, making up little stories that they act out, having make-believe tea parties and all that. Barney actually encourages that kind of activity in those children. It's not intended to displace it."
Children are drawn and captivated by Barney's program because it is so simple. It is that very thing that makes Barney so annoying to some adults. Perkins-Landry says what those who hate Barney don't seem to quite understand is that Barney isn't for them. If it were, the 2- to 5-year-olds wouldn't want to watch it. HIT's own in-house Ph.D., Mary Ann Dudko, studies the shows and recommends ways to ensure children are learning from it, Perkins-Landry says. Dudko says Barney is attractive to children because Barney has a "nurturing personality" and gives "unconditional love."
Bull, the broadcast journalist, and Chambers, the pastor, both say things that help make HIT's point on one level: Barney doesn't entertain them.
"I think you can do effective children's television programming that is intelligent, fun and creative. I mean you look at Arthur [the cartoon on PBS starring a precocious 8-year-old aardvark], Sesame Street or the old Electric Company program, and there is entertainment value as well as educational value that people of all age groups could really appreciate," Bull says.
"The television shows are basically lightweight, but entertaining to children," Chambers' pamphlet says. "It's easy to see why their inquisitive minds would be captivated."
Singer agrees. "I would consider it relative torture to be placed in front of Barney for any extended period of time...I've lived past that. I'm not 5 years old."
But, he says, Barney isn't an evil force that needs to be wiped off the planet. In fact, Barney represents genuine goodness to small children, and that's why he's still around. But, that's also a big part of his public relations problem.
"We as adults have developed a certain cynicism, a certain doubt and skepticism about the world," he says. "People who seem too goody-goody or sweet-natured are under suspicion."
Back in line at the casting call, parents and children wait for their shot at becoming one of Barney's friends. No parent or child says he's enduring the heat for a chance to dip into show business money, which they might not know isn't much. Perkins-Landry says the terms of the contracts with the children are not disclosed, but the children involved with the show have not earned a fortune.
"It's not like the Friends stars. They don't make $7 million," she says. "They probably make a good start for their college fund."
A hot and sweaty-looking Dorothy Hagan is into the third hour of waiting outside the studio where her 7-year-old daughter Abigail is auditioning. Hagan, a Carrollton resident, says she doesn't mind waiting for Barney.
After a rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" and a short skit with an imaginary Barney, Abigail emerges from the studio. Reunited, mother and daughter profess a longtime, shared love for Barney.
"Tell them why you would like to be on Barney," Dorothy urges.
"I would like to be on Barney because I have never actually, really been on a real TV show before, and I'd really like to do that," Abigail says.
"That's not the answer Mom was looking for," Dorothy says, looking down at her daughter somewhat disapprovingly. Dorothy says Abigail is a natural talent and that the director of a local theater directed Abigail to Barney's casting call.
"She is a real loving child. She just sort of bounces wherever she goes. That would be a good way to say it," Dorothy says. "And, Barney is a very uplifting show."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.