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Dead medium: Winky-Dink Interactive TV
From: julian@mostly.com (Julian Dibbell)

Source(s): The "TV Party" Website (www.tvparty.com)
*Winky-Dink and You* (Or, Interactive Television, Take One)
by Julian Dibbell

At http://www.tvparty.com/requested2.html, the following can be found under the heading "Winky Dink and You":

"Broadcast in glorious black and white beginning in 1953, this program featured the adventures of a cartoon lad named Winky-Dink and his dog Woofer, interspersed with the in-studio antics of a host and an audience of kids. The gimmick was that the boys and girls at home were asked to help Winky-Dink out of a jam by drawing a ladder or a rope on the TV screen. This was done with the aid of a Winky-Dink Kit which was sold by mail for fifty cents. 'We sold millions of those kits' the show's host Jack Barry commented, 'It was well thought out.'

"You could place the clear piece of plastic that came in the kit over the television screen and connect the dots to create a bridge for Winky Dink to cross to safety, and trace the letters to read the secret messages broadcast towards the end of the show. Which I guess makes Winky- Dink the world's first interactive video game. Of course, it goes without saying that scores of kids without the kits drew on the television screen itself, ruining many a family's first television sets.

"Winky-Dink and You originally ran Saturday mornings at 10:00 am, from October 10, 1953 until April 27, 1957 on the CBS network. Along with host Jack Barry was Dayton Allen as Mr. Bungle, his assistant that never gets anything right. You may recognize the name 'Mr. Bungle' as the name of a very popular alternative band of the early nineties.

"In 1956, Jack Barry began hosting a wildly popular prime-time game show he also produced called Twenty-One, and Winky-Dink was canceled the next year. Barry said at the time, 'It strictly didn't rate that well. It was on for almost four and a half years, but it never got the kind of audience the straight cartoon shows started pulling.' Twenty-One, on the other hand, was riding the crest of popularity that game shows were enjoying on the Fifties prime-time schedule.

"In the fall of 1958, Twenty-One (and almost every other game show) was driven off the air when it was revealed that $129,000 winner Charles Van Doren was given some of the answers in advance. (The story was told in the movie 'Quiz Show'.) Jack Barry, as host and producer of the show that broke the industry wide practice of prompting some contestants, took the brunt of the bad publicity. Because of the immense scandal that ensued, it was another ten years before Jack Barry worked on television again.

"In 1969, Winky-Dink was revived by Barry, this time as a five minute cartoon feature, complete with a new Winky-Dink kit for kids to send off for. Consumer groups argued that kids shouldn't be playing with their eyes so close to the TV set, and the character was quickly retired.

"Modern audiences will remember Jack Barry as the host of the long running CBS game show 'The Joker's Wild', a show he hosted from 1972 until his death in 1984. Barry also hosted a children's version of the 'The Joker's Wild' called 'Joker, Joker, Joker' from 1979 until 1981, bringing his career full circle."

(((Julian Dibbell remarks:)))

Thus ends a remarkable entry in the annals of dead- media history, with only a couple of important questions left dangling. To wit:

1. Why has Jack Barry not been canonized as the patron saint of interactive television?

All other experiments in interactive TV to date have been just that: experiments, and mostly unsuccessful ones at that. Mr. Barry, on the other hand, put ITV on a major network for four years running, and though he downplayed the commercial success of the venture, it's clear he had his sights set on bigger things than children's programming anyway.

Personally I suspect *Winky Dink* was more of a hit than he let on. Speaking as one who was old enough to catch the 1969 version of the show in my kindergarten years, I can attest that its appeal to at least one child was nothing short of ravishing. I did not have access to the Winky Dink Kit, sadly, and I can still remember clearly the gnawing existential hunger with which I yearned to cross the barrier of the TV screen and join with Winky Dink in his adventures. Certainly nothing in the subsequent history of interactive television, be it the ill-fated Qube or the insinuating WebTV, has inspired anything like that desire in me.

It has been noted in an earlier Working Note that some media die into an afterlife as children's toys, and perhaps that is to be interactive television's fate. Perhaps it's time the John Malones and Bill Gateses of the world came to accept the humbling but hardly dishonorable fact that they are merely following in the great Jack Barry's footsteps.

2. Why has *Winky Dink* itself not ascended into the canon of iconographic Americana, right up there with Marilyn Monroe, the Apollo 11 moonwalk, and disco shoes?

In the reader-response area of the TV Party site, one boomer nostalgist recalls coming to Winky Dink's aid with a stick of his mother's lipstick, scribbling directly on the screen without benefit of the official plastic screenguard; another remembers that one day the secret word kids were asked to spell out was the surprisingly arcane SABOTAGE. How is it that such ripe ingredients have escaped the eye of a DeLillo or a Pynchon? How is it that nowhere in postwar fiction do we find a scene in which, sometime in the same year the Rosenbergs were executed, or the same year Joe McCarthy's witch hunts came to a head, a mother comes home to find fragments of the word SABOTAGE scrawled in blood-red lettering across the face of her TV set, itself a strange new addition to the cultural landscape?

Granted, the nod given by Bay Area thrash-funk weirdos Mr. Bungle does go a good way toward securing *Winky Dink* its rightful place in the field of pop-cultural reference. Likewise, the starring role of a certain "Mr. Bungle" in one of the founding myths of latter-day cyberculture == the so-called "virtual rape" case at LambdaMOO, dug up and hyped by this reporter and others back in late '93 == brings the new-media resonances of *Winky Dink* full circle in a particularly pungent way.

But I dare say the rich motherlode that is *Winky Dink and You* has only begun to be tapped.

Julian Dibbell (julian@mostly.com)