Like most new parents, Julie Aigner-Clark wanted to give her baby daughter the best. What could be better than exposing her to the arts, thought the former English teacher. From that idea back in 1997 grew the multibillion-dollar infant development media empire known as Baby Einstein. Although Aigner-Clark and her husband, William, sold the company to the Walt Disney Co. in 2001, they have been involved in a controversy stemming from two University of Washington studies claiming to link TV viewing by babies and toddlers to attention issues and delayed language development. Recently, William went to court to get the University of Washington to release its data. Disney also was facing pressure by consumer groups and the threat of a class-action suit over its educational claims, prompting Disney to offer refunds in late 2009 for Baby Einstein products.
At the same time Aigner-Clark, 43, was battling breast cancer, twice — in 2004 and again in 2008. Her book geared for children about her family’s experiences, “Your Love is the Best Medicine,” is set to be published by Harper Collins in the fall. And her company, Aigner Clark Creative, continues to make educational videos, this time geared for older kids and seniors.
Aigner-Clark and her husband live in the Denver area with their daughters, Aspen, 15, and Sierra, 12, and a menagerie that includes two lovebirds, four chickens, two cats, a mouse, a frog and too many fish to count.
Let’s go back to the beginning. You founded the Baby Einstein Co. as a way to “expose babies and moms to the arts and nature,” according to your Web site. What kind of research did you do to decide how best to create that?
The reality was my only research was by being a mom. I knew what my daughter liked looking at, and I thought other babies might pretty much like the same thing. Babies like simplicity. I was basically making a video board game but I put great music to it. It just made sense to me.
In what ways did you believe it would be educational?
I never did, and that’s where the real odd part of this whole controversy is. Baby Einstein never claimed to be educational; it was to expose babies to beautiful things. It wasn’t about being smart, it wasn’t about education, it was about exposure.
A few years ago, you told the Denver Post that your intent was that parents would watch Baby Einstein videos with their kids, making it an interactive experience just like reading a book or playing a game with them. But, of course, most parents plop their kids before the TV — not to make their kids “smart,” but to buy themselves a half-hour to cook dinner, make a phone call or fold the laundry. Do you think the interactive message was misunderstood?
I do think the interactive message was misunderstood. We didn’t want to make a video baby-sitter, but I’d also say as a real mom, there are times when our baby wants to veg. In my opinion, it’s not damaging. It’s the real world. No one should be 24-hours a day stimulating their baby. I think the message has been misconstrued.
I just went to see “The Lovely Bones” and sat two seats behind a mom and her baby. I thought, are you kidding me? There are so many more terrible things happening in the world that are so much worse than Baby Einstein.