The increasing demand for cable television content means the rise of more and more specialized networks to fill that vast, ever-expanding bandwidth. Interested in watching only programming that caters to your interest in professional horseracing, lawn-and-garden maintenance, or the specific sensibilities of Oprah Winfrey? There are now entire channels devoted to nothing but—all self-contained ecosystems existing far beyond the perimeter of mainstream TV, all populated by foreign civilizations of personalities harboring their own unique languages, value systems, and ideas of what constitutes entertainment. Most of these go completely undiscovered, happened upon only by an accidental slip of the remote and quickly fled after an exclamation of, “What the hell am I watching?” TV Outland cuts a machete-swath through the TV thickets, and explores the strange indigenous tribes living just out of sight on your cable package.
The channel: Established as a “safe zone” for parents fed up with all the immoral, innuendo-laden programming of other so-called “children’s networks,” Smile Of A Child TV launched in 2005 as an offshoot of the Trinity Broadcasting Network. As we covered when we looked at TBN’s teen-oriented arm, JCTV, the powerful Christian media company was co-founded in 1973 by Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, along with their former youth pastors Paul and Jan Crouch, with the latter taking control once the Bakkers vacated to PTL and eternal infamy. And much like JCTV, Smile Of A Child is a family affair, with TBN’s fuchsia-haired doyenne Jan putting her personal, pastel-colored smear on everything down to the network’s butterfly logo, the wings of which are formed by the initials of her maiden name.
Like all TBN channels, Smile Of A Child runs 24 hours of programming in 57 U.S. cities—and thanks to satellite, reaches “over 100 million souls” worldwide. It’s also completely viewer-supported, although Smile Of A Child takes this a little further than its siblings: In addition to soliciting donations ($10 gets you a singing “Jesus Loves Me” Bunny!), Smile Of A Child also asks viewers who have “been blessed by the programs that air here every day” to help come up with more of those programs, either by sending in their original work or simply alerting them to available shows that they could pick up, preferably for free or on the cheap, to fill those 24 hours of blessing.
Target audience: Though Smile Of A Child is explicitly for little Christians, that desperation for programs leads to a varied spectrum of subject matter—from innocuously secular education and basic decision-making lesson plans to shows where puppets sing about crucifixion—that’s intended for any parents who want to keep their brood entertained “without the objectionable content that so many ‘kids’ shows and movies seem to get away with now days,” as one mission statement puts it. Still, there’s no question whom it’s preaching to, and what: In lieu of commercials are exhortations to come and visit the TBN Holy Land Experience Theme Park or join Billy Graham’s Dare To Be A Daniel ministry program, plus interstitials scored by the children’s hymn “Jesus Loves Me” or featuring kids asking each other “Bible Fun” jokes. (Because you definitely want one: “When a camel was born without a hump on the Ark, what did Noah name it?” “Humphrey!”) Parents who don’t like objectionable content but also aren’t crazy about evangelism for preschoolers should definitely keep clicking.
What’s on: That said, other than a few notable exceptions, most of its shows are less concerned with teaching the Bible than basic education principles, such as the alphabet, counting, vocabulary, pattern recognition, not getting hit by a car, etc. Superficially, it’s not unlike the children’s programming you’ll find elsewhere—and in fact, nearly all of it did originate somewhere else, often many years ago. Canada, like most of the channels we’ve covered here, is Smile Of A Child’s chief supplier, aided by the U.K., Australia, and even Japan, which exports decades-old anime like The Flying House and Superbook (both of which mash-up robots, time travel, and ancient Bible stories in a way only the Japanese can make logical).
Its archiving stretches all the way back to 1963’s animated The Funny Company, combing the decades to cull programs glimpsed across the far-flung corners of local public television—everything from the relatively more well-known Gerbert, Auto B. Good, and The Huggabug Club to the obscure, fascinating curios like Arkansas’ Kids Like You, a sort of children’s Hee Haw best remembered for its one creepy puppet that looked like Jim Nabors. Ditto Found Footage Fest featured player The Filling Station, in which a mustachioed gas station attendant offers to “fill you up with God’s word.”
Some of these revitalized shows have even been retrofitted with Christian messages to make them belong. Such as Dooley And Pals, the story of an alien who crash-lands in an American backyard and learns all about humanity, an education that now includes obviously inserted “Fun Bible Facts” segments (segments that, strangely, never address where space aliens factor into God’s plan). Or The Reppies, a mid-’90s Canadian series about humanoid reptiles who storm the rock ’n’ roll charts, their Creationism-defying existence and dalliance with the devil’s music covered up on Smile Of A Child with awkwardly redubbed lyrics about God.
The network’s rapacious need to fill 24 hours a day (for children who may have a crisis of faith in the wee hours) plus its open-door submission policy means its crowded schedule is nearly always changing, with shows dying off so that others may fruitfully multiply. But all several dozen of them have a place waiting for it in Smile Of A Child show heaven, where they sit at the right hand of shows like Babushka’s Christmas and Away In A Monster Manger while they await the day of their inevitable resurrection.
The viewing week: As educators have long known, the best way to get a child to pay attention to any lesson—be it staying away from drugs or accepting Jesus as your personal savior—is through a puppet, and puppets are easily the most common vessel for God’s word on Smile Of A Child. Some of the better-produced shows take the form of, to put it kindly, homage to Jim Henson’s world—such as Pahappahooey Island, which explicitly describes itself as a “Muppet-style” show, and actually lives up to the comparison with relatively sophisticated puppetry and frequent pop-culture references (everything from Braveheart to The Godfather to The Empire Strikes Back).
Pahappahooey concerns the adventures of a young girl stranded among a society of ethnically diverse animals (a Cajun frog, an Italian alligator, a German beaver) who’s tasked with sharing the word of “the Creator” and “the Book,” much to the scorn of an evil snake. And by rarely explicitly using the words “God” or “the Bible,” Pahappahooey almost creates its own mythology—sort of like a kiddie Lost, with a lot less whining. It’s so subtle, your kids may not always be aware they’re learning about Christianity.
More common, however, are shows like Arnie’s Shack, in which a grizzled old farmer in the Australian outback hectors kids about God’s grace. Presumably a grandfatherly presence on the Melbourne stations where he originates—but still giving off definite, “I’ve got human hides tanning in my shed” vibes—Arnie is the patriarch to an extended family of other energetic puppets who all love to go on adventures in the great outdoors. And of course, most of these involve standing around having lengthy discourses about death and the origin of sin—just like you and your friends!
Creating all sorts of theological paradoxes, several Smile Of A Child shows imagine a world where humans and puppets peacefully coexist. Even more strangely, most of these puppets are also talking animals, historically the instruments of Satan’s trickery. Perhaps his lies explain why, for example, Mustard Pancakes singer-songwriter Courtney Campbell spends so much of her time cut off from her fellow humans, choosing instead to give all her love to her many cats and dogs, thus filling her spiritual emptiness the same way she fills her stomach with unnatural, mustard-based pastries? (All joking aside, the show’s kind of sweet.)
Speaking of unnatural, Mary Rice Hopkins: Puppets With A Heart finds the country singer consorting with fuzzy creatures of indeterminate species whose biological make-up includes removable hearts. In between jaunty tunes about friendship, believing in yourself, and serving God, Hopkins will pause to rip out one of these companions’ hearts and show it to them, then tear it open to see what symbolic objects are inside—for example, insects, because they’re “bugged” by something. It’s a gentle message about learning to look inside yourself and let go of the things that are holding you back from loving, relayed with just a dash of Mortal Kombat.
Scary as Hopkins’ open-heart surgery is, however, there’s nothing more unnerving than the classic ventriloquist dummy, made in man’s image in a sneering perversion of the story of Creation. In Maralee Dawn & Friends, that abomination is played out all across the country, as the titular puppeteer plasters on a rictus smile and holds her young charges in her lap while they tour and sing for live audiences. Their chariot is a surprisingly technologically advanced (for the early ’90s) conveyance called the Wonder Wheels Bus loaded with gadgets and friendly robots, suggesting a not-too-distant future where mankind nurtures a generation of artificially intelligent machines and puppet-people by teaching them ancient Bible passages. It’s a chilling vision.
Similarly sparking troubling questions about our place in this world is The Charlie Church Mouse Show, where a giant, felt-covered, Chuck E. Cheese-like rodent in a copyright-evading, crucifix-emblazoned T-shirt consorts with a gang of garishly designed CGI animals, women who dress like living dolls, and a pair of ordinary, if slightly anesthetized children. Ditto Gina D’s Kids Club, a Stepfordized Pee-wee’s Playhouse in which relentlessly positive, unflappably turtlenecked host Gina D turns her living room into an Eden for all living things, be they animal puppets, talking televisions, or excitable drag-queen bakers. With a whole lot of heart and Auto-Tune, Gina D sings about exercising, eating right, and being courteous, pausing occasionally for “And Now, A Message From God…” cartoon interstitials or placards bearing her own signed, “inspirational” quotes, such as, “Imagine if you were a bird and could fly up to the sky!—Gina D.”
Gina’s frequent concessions to the Almighty still aren’t enough to make up for the more troubling aspects of her show, however: Several parents have complained about boundary-pushing characters like the “thug monkey” who listens to rap music, or the blatant concessions to evolutionism with songs about dinosaurs, as memorably featured on The Soup.
Such confusing intermixing, thankfully, is rarely found in Smile Of A Child’s animated programming, where most species keep to their own kind. Cartoon humans have Friends & Heroes, a historical adventure set in the Roman empire of 69 A.D. and concerning a family trying to keep their Christianity a secret while also telling each other Bible stories. And the sort-of-humans have Cherub Wings, in which a CGI baby angel does CGI baby angel things in Heaven, giggles at his own alliteration-heavy dialogue, and shares God’s love with the children of Earth—a love that they are encouraged to repay with prayer and, above all, obedience.
There are also plenty of cartoon animals, of course, including the secular (if still morally centered) Vipo: Adventures Of The Flying Dog and Ewe Know, as well as Paws And Tales and Life At The Pond, animated versions of two different Christian children’s radio dramas in which menageries learn the importance of proper behavior to go along with their unnaturally human characteristics. But on Smile Of A Child, Jesus has no greater animated apostle than the cartoon bear. The earnest star of BJ’s Teddy Bear Club retells biblical parables in a way that preschoolers can understand (or, at least, accept on faith), interjecting his own adorable bear-related puns along the way (i.e. “I’m bear-y glad he found forgiveness!”). Meanwhile, Chubby Cubbies features an entire roly-poly sleuth of bear servants that teach children 6 and under how to pray and order their entire lives around the Lord, suggesting there’s no better friend to have at playtime than Jesus.
Of course, the Bible’s only mentions of talking animals are the serpent that tricked Adam and Eve, or the ass that refused to carry Balaam into Israel. Therefore, only The Adventures Of Donkey Ollie hews closest to the Word, retelling some of Christianity’s most famous stories through the eyes of a donkey who finds himself ostracized and bullied by his brothers, all because he has been blessed with a beautiful singing voice—a voice tailor-made for singing Loverboy/Foreigner-esque rock songs. Truly, God is great.
Still, as the hymn says, “All creatures great and small… The Lord God made them all,” and on Smile Of A Child, the Creator’s love extends even to the tiny insects of Bugtime Adventures, whose hard-won lessons about doing the right thing parallel those of nearby biblical figures, as well as two shows about morally upstanding, pious caterpillars, Hermie And Friends and The Adventures Of Carlos Caterpillar. God also gives life and strength to the flowers of Little Buds—who thank him by teaching his children the alphabet, the Christian way (“A is for Ark, B is for Bible… Z is for Zacchaeus”)—and even provides not one but two shows to some anthropomorphic rocks, perhaps as recompense for all those sinners they had to stone.
The first of these illustrates the downside of the network’s open-door programming policy: You might be forced to accept something like The Boulder Buddies, a hideously amateur show in which misshapen lumps of clay sing unimaginative songs about listening to your parents while repeatedly shouting their own name. (“Do you love the Boulder Buddies?” they’ll often stop to ask, with no modicum of desperation.) According to the show’s creators, Boulder Buddies was created to “put the ‘G’ back in G-ratings,” but its relentless self-marketing—Be sure to get a plush Boulder Buddy!—and off-putting animation brings other “G” words to mind. Like “grotesque,” “greed,” or “great merciful crap, how many times have they said ‘Boulder Buddies’ already?”
Smile Of A Child’s other show in the heretofore-undiscovered “singing rock” genre at least has some concrete thought behind its concrete shenanigans. God Rocks! bases itself on the Luke 19:40 passage, “If the people fall silent, the stones will cry out.” And more than just cry, these stones form a literal rock band, singing God’s praises and getting into adventures familiar to any touring rock group—like becoming missionaries, or entering a surfing contest that somehow illustrates a lesson from Corinthians. Somewhat confusingly, the voices behind God Rocks! also tour as a real-live rock band, so the show is evenly divided between those cartoons and their human, cartoonishly behaving counterparts, who set up each animated segment with a “Remember when…?” intro that suggests they’re only cartoon rocks in their own minds. (Also confusing: Their habit of saying “spikin’” instead of “rockin’.”)
Joining God Rocks! on Smile Of A Child, as well as the real-world Christian rock circuit, is New Zealand trio The Lads, God’s own personal Green Day. On its live-action show The Lads TV, the group sings catchy, poppy songs about faith while also getting tangled up in Monkees-like sitcom plots. These primarily involve each of them chasing dreams of being a “rocker,” a word that—tipping the show toward just this side of “trying too hard”—accounts for approximately 50 percent of their total dialogue.
The attempt to bridge righteousness with rebellion—insomuch as Christian rock and the occasional fart joke can be considered rebellious—also drives the grammatically 2.0 iShine KNECT, a musical variety show featuring “totally tweaked” performances from and interviews with ’tween-oriented artists who are just a few years shy of graduating to JCTV. God Rocks!, The Lads TV, and iShine all share JCTV’s sense of straining to make Christianity “cool,” hampered by their age-appropriate demands to omit talk of tattoos and extreme sports, and all come up comparatively short.
As iShine reminds, there’s practically no television format that cannot be given a Christian spin. Retro News: Blast From The Past takes old public-domain newsreel clips and presents them as a kid-anchored newsmagazine show about historical events, intercut with segments on “Spiritual Heroes.” The exercise-show Kid Fit and the cooking shows Super-Naturally Healthy Kids and Fun Food Adventures, all remind us that the body is a temple, and give tips on "honoring" your parents by making them gourmet meals. And even nature documentaries can be repurposed as Creations Creatures, which ignores the lie of evolution to focus on all the many animals God put on the Earth on the sixth day, and the way they are all exactly as according to his plan.
It’s shows like Creations Creatures that may cause even Christian parents to take issue with children’s education shows where the Bible is the most important textbook. For example, when one co-host expresses dismay over an endangered species, the other helpfully reminds her to “remember Matthew 7:1—judge not lest ye be judged.” (Because when it comes to deforestation and unregulated hunting practices, our only recourse is to forgive.) Meanwhile, each show ends with some variation on, “I hope you learned something about big cats—but more importantly, I hope you learned that God loves you” before the host leads a closing prayer, confident that their audience has been given a proper lesson that day, but not one of those godless scientific ones.
Signature show: Jan Crouch seems to have hit upon the idea (or amassed the financial means) for Smile Of A Child too late to take advantage of some of TBN’s original children’s programming—like Colby’s Clubhouse, a longtime TBN staple about a God-loving robot, which lives on in reruns. But the channel still has one of the network’s flagship series in Faithville. On the air since the mid-’90s, Faithville’s cast hails from the flock of a Windsor, Ontario, church, all of whom play citizens in an idyllic, 1940s-era “Town That Lives After Its Name.” Their characters—all boasting pun-based names like gas-station owner Phil R. Up and barber I. Cutright—then learn and impart Bible lessons through their folksy, comical misadventures, sort of like an explicitly Christian Andy Griffith Show.
Some of that humor, as creator Tom Collins said in a recent interview, can be chalked up to divine intervention, when honorary director God grants them an unexpected pratfall. And as with most Christian comedy, it’s so gently corny, it barely registers as humor. But the show radiates goodwill and gumption down to its “Accentuate The Positive” theme song, gamely tripping through its telegraphed pie fights, line flubs, and frequent cameos from the boom mic (God doesn’t believe in multiple takes) with can-do volunteer spirit. Faithville has proven so popular that it even merited a spinoff for younger viewers, Miss Charity’s Diner, in which the curtain is pulled back on the town’s secret, rarely glimpsed society of talking puppet milkshakes and worms. Taken together, these perfectly preserved slices of Americana and puppet-y fantasies present a picture of the safe world where Smile Of A Child wishes every child could live.
Defining personality: While Jan Crouch’s stamp is literally on every show in the form of that ever-present butterfly, her own cosmetically enhanced, cotton candy-topped visage is never actually glimpsed on Smile Of A Child, with Crouch reserving all of her screen time to wheedling viewers’ grocery money and speaking in tongues on TBN proper. But she has a close-enough analogue in the host of BB’s Bedtime Stories, Erika Pealstrom, who dons pigtails and pajamas to cavort on a bed covered in dolls, sing songs about loving bath time, and tell stories to and about her stuffed cat, Monty.
Even more so than the very similar Sarah’s Stories (which also features an adult woman disconcertingly pretending to be a little girl), BB’s recalls Crouch’s own tendency toward infantilizing (such as the way Crouch constantly refers to her viewers as “little precious ones”), as well as the confusing, uncomfortable sexual dissonance experienced by anyone who’s ever happened across TBN, only to find Crouch’s giant, plastic breasts making the makeshift Babylon of her set look comparatively modest. (That dissonance is definitely magnified watching Pealstrom’s decidedly more secular YouTube videos, posted under the name “HelloBombshell11.”)
Each episode of BB’s Bedtime Stories embodies, at its most awkward, Smile Of A Child’s attempt to bridge children’s storytelling with sermonizing. For example, Pealstrom will relate a story about, say, Monty ignoring his master’s rules and getting lost in the woods briefly, then stretch to extrapolate it into a lesson about how you “can’t pick and choose what to listen to in the Bible.” (So avoid menstruating women and don’t mix fibers, kids!) And every episode ends with Pealstrom leading a prayer in which she urges her preschool audience to swear to God they believe he “raised Jesus from the dead.” Nighty-night!
Switching off: If the only measure of success by which Smile Of A Child can be judged (and we know… Matthew 7:1) is whether it provides children’s programming free from “objectionable content,” then it’s a rousing success, definitely worthy of its endorsements by the Parents Television Council and even the United Nations. It may even be cruel to ignore Crouch’s Smile Of A Child Foundation, the humanitarian outreach arm of the network that aids in international relief efforts all over the globe, as a sign of its inherently good deeds—deeds far better than our own. But of course, there are more pertinent measures of success when it comes to specialty cable channels, and this is where we must render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and evaluate its worth as entertainment, even in its frequently ghettoized children’s form.
And by that measure, Smile Of A Child is primarily useless to all but the most devout of Christian families, and then only the least discerning. Yes, it instills in your children the most basic and important tenet of Christianity—that God loves you—and lays a foundation of faith that will allow them to address thornier questions later. But while you may believe God loves you, the evidence once again suggests that Paul and Jan Crouch don’t particularly give a shit. They continue to use their cable empire to amass revenue while expending the least effort possible to grow and improve it. Smile Of A Child seems to have been assembled at the lowest possible cost and with the assumption that parents won’t really care what’s on it, so long as it’s sort-of Christian. And if you’re truly, deeply invested in instilling those values in your children and shepherding every waking moment of their personal growth, surely you can put a little more thought into it. Jesus loves the little children, but in this case, he makes for a pretty crappy babysitter.