Classic Kids’ TV: Winky Dink and You
By Jo Holz
An interactive TV show in the 1950’s?!? That’s right, Winky Dink and You, which aired Saturday mornings on CBS from 1953 to 1957, employed a simple but brilliant marketing gimmick that actually allowed kids to “interact” with the TV. The show featured host Jack Barry and his sidekick, the aptly-named Mr. Bungle, who showed clips of the animated adventures of a crudely-drawn star-headed, big-eyed little boy named Winky Dink and his dog Woofer.
What made the show unique was the use of a “magic drawing screen” and set of special crayons that came in a kit that children could buy in order to interact with the cartoon. The magic drawing screen was actually a large TV-shaped piece of see-through plastic that stuck to the TV screen by static electricity. At several points during each episode of the show, children at home were invited to draw on the “magic screen” to engage with the show. For example, sometimes Winky would encounter an obstacle or danger, and there would be a connect-the-dots picture included in the scene. Winky Dink would then ask the children at home to help him out by connecting the dots on the screen with their crayons, and the resulting drawing would turn out to be a rope, ladder, bridge, or whatever Winky needed to solve his problem.
The interactive screen was also used to send secret messages to the audience. A message would appear on the screen, but only the vertical lines of the printed letters in the message were visible. Young viewers at home would quickly trace these lines onto their magic screen. Then a second screen would appear showing only the horizontal lines, and when viewers also traced these onto their magic screens, the full message would appear.
Winky Dink and You took advantage of the public’s concerns about television viewing leading to passivity in children by touting the use of its magic screen as a form of active engagement. Because of the ingenious magic screen, Winky Dink and You became a big hit in the 1950’s. And the producers profited handsomely from sales of the screen and crayon kits, which every child had to have. In fact, by 1955, over 2 million kits had been sold.
Of course, you can guess what happened in the homes of kids whose parents wouldn’t pony up 25 cents to buy them the kits. Some of them simply got out their own crayons and drew right on their TV screens, which couldn’t have been good for their parents’ expensive shiny new Philco or RCA set.
Combined with the problem of kids drawing directly on the TV, concerns about children ruining their eyesight and also possibly being exposed to “radiation” emanating from the TV by sitting too close to the set in order to use the magic screen caused a parental backlash. So, despite the show’s popularity, it was cancelled in 1957.
In an ironic footnote to the show’s history, host Jack Barry went on to fame and notoriety when he later became the host of Twenty-One, a popular prime-time quiz show that he also co-produced. In 1958, it was revealed that Twenty-One’s top-prize winner Charles Van Doren had secretly been given the answers to some of the questions he correctly answered on the show. Twenty-One was taken off the air, and Barry’s career was over.
Check out this episode on YouTube to experience Winky Dink and You for yourself!
Jo Holz was formerly the head of research for Sesame Workshop, the producer of Sesame Street. She is the author of Kids' TV Grows Up: The Path from Howdy Doody to SpongeBob. kidstvgrowsup.com