America's first interactive TV show is now available again on DVD and VHS. Paul Feldman reports on Winky Dink and why it still appeals today.
With its arrival in the American household as the primary medium of entertainment, television and children became fast friends. The two have spent hours and hours of time together, in a silent watcher/watched relationship. This dynamic changed in 1953 with the arrival of the Winky Dink and You program, a show that Bill Gates has called the first interactive TV show. Airing on CBS from 1953 1957, Winky Dink was a hit. While new episodes were re-introduced for syndication in the '70s, the show has been hidden awayuntil now. Recently re-issued Winky Dink is back as the ultimate low-tech way to entertain.
Remember Winky Dink
Winky Dink is the name of the series towheaded hero, who with his dippy canine sidekick Woofer, get in and out of all manner of adventures and tough spots. The hook? The children watching the show are also active participants. After placing a clear plastic sheet over the screen, kids use oil pastel crayons to draw into the scene whatever Winky Dink and Woofer need to move along in the story -- be it a staircase, a disguise or a rocket ship. The pastels wipe off the plastic easily with no trace and the screen is ready for the animated duos next adventure.
Winky Dink and You was created by Ed Wycoff and the late Harry W. Prichett in 1953. At the time the two were employed by an advertising firm that handled one of the sponsors for Your Show of Shows. The idea for Winky Dink was born when Prichett applied a piece of acetate to his TV screen in an effort to test different letter sizes for a TV spot. Wycoff elaborates, He [Prichett] drew a moustache on someone who was on TV, then he drew a stick figure in a boxing matchit seemed to be fighting with the boxers.
It was an extraordinarily wonderful low-tech program." Describing how this experience would later influence the creation of Winky Dink, he goes on to explain, "We came up with the idea of Fixed Position. You get the kid to draw in a certain space, and we could work the world around that drawing. This concept is employed time and again in the series, when the viewer is asked to trace or draw an object that is turned into something completely different such as when the tracings of a characters nose and coat button are converted into a submarine.
Part of Winky Dinks charm lies in its simplicity, not only conceptually, but technically as well. This is a free form of animation, states Wycoff. Due to the economics and demands of 1950's television, Forget cels and flipping things, we needed to do it quickly and cheaply.
The quick and inexpensive production was achieved by combining aspects of animatics and stop-motion animation. Winky Dink was a little cut-out, Wycoff explains. I would move him around free-hand for the camera. The trick of the whole thing is not so much in the style of the animation, but in creating a place for the viewer.
Just Plain Fun
While many consider Winky Dink to be the progenitor of interactive television, Wycoff takes a slightly different view: I think the word is really involvement. Its a very involving experienceIn simpler terms it's fun.
The resilience of Winky Dink is remarkable. Nearly 50 years after the shows inception, in a market clogged with home video gaming platforms, the idea of drawing on the TV screen with a crayon still intrigues children. The real key word in the name Winky Dink and You is 'You.' You are important. Its [the show] related to the manipulation of a crayon, which to a child is basicits a very satisfying experiencean experience that seems to stay.
Also remarkable is the impact Winky Dink has had on its viewers. Im always pleasantly and delightfully surprised at the retention of memory. Its always gratifying, says Wycoff.
Its amazing how many people remember it. If I got ten people in a room between 50 and 60 years-old, more than half will remember it. Most of them would probably start singing the song. It's so unique. Everybody talks about interactive TV, but Ive never seen it in the U.S. outside of Winky Dink, remarks Adam Snyder of Rembrandt Films, the company that is now re-issuing Winky Dink kits and videos through Vanguard Cinema. The basic kit contains one video with nine episodes, a magic screen, magic pastel crayons and a magic cloth to clean things up at the end. Additional videos are available separately, of course. And, don't despair parents, if your children do indeed draw right on the TV screen forgetting their magic screenthe crayon comes right off with a little glass cleaner.
The Future for Winky
Winky Dink is now available on both VHS and DVD at some Borders, Virgin Records and Tower stores and at http://www.rembrandtfilms.com. The DVD's bonus material includes two original Winky Dink episodes from the '50s (the episodes currently on video are from the shows resurgence in the '70s) and both video and audio interviews with Ed Wycoff discussing his part in the Winky Dink saga.
Wycoff is far from calling it a day however: We think were on the right track. One of the critical problems with Winky Dink is proving that it works. I hope that when we have enough success we can extend the concept, he states. Theres a lot more where we could slip in education. We could teach a kid to read and write.
Wycoff is passionate on his emphasis of this point. He describes Winky Dink as, Learning without being taught. You can learn by doing things. Winky Dink and You says the kid does it, and you is the best name in the world.
What youre looking at now is 20% of its potential, he asserts. I hope that 25 years from now my daughter is playing with the concept. We can do more and we can do better.
Paul Feldman is an L.A.-based freelance writer who has covered entertainment industry stories for on-line journals such as the Creative Planet community sites of Director's World and Cinematographer.com.
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