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 screen was actually a large TV-shaped piece of see-through vinyl that stuck to the TV screen by static electricity. At a climactic point in every Winky Dink cartoon, Winky would encounter some obstacle or danger, along with 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 letters in the message were visible. 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.
Another way the magic screen was used was to have the viewers create the outline of a character with whom host Jack Barry would have a conversation. The scene appeared meaningless to viewers without the magic screen and the drawing.
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. Of course, you can guess what happened in the homes of kids whose parents wouldn’t 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.
Winky Dink and You was revived in syndication as a five-minute stand-alone cartoon from 1969-1973, but production was halted because of parents’ concerns about the possibility of radiation emanating from TV sets and about kids’ harming their eyesight by watching the TV screen from so close-up. The continuing problem of kids drawing directly on the TV screen probably didn’t help matters either.
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.