The glory days of kids' TV.

Snapshots of life at home.
Feb. 16 2006 1:15 PM

Turn It On

The Electric Company—the glory days of kids' TV.

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By the end of the weekend, we'd established three Electric Company principles: 1) Spider-Man remains the chief attraction. 2) The groovy '70s haircuts aren't a deal-breaker. 3) Whoever decided to give each punctuation mark its own splurty sound was a genius. Eli didn't fall for all of the reading propaganda, however. When a rail-thin and dimpled Morgan Freeman sang, "Readin' readin,' that's my game/ unh unh unh," Eli announced: "Soccer is my game." But, at the end of the episode, he lobbied for more—and a few weeks later, still does.

Moreno says that she and the rest of the EC cast worked 12-hour shifts, week in and week out, to learn as many as eight routines a day. Today's stars, like Chris Rock and Will Ferrell, make time for one-off cartoon voice-overs. But even if the current producers of educational television could fill a live cast with Hollywood names, they probably wouldn't. A live cast means haircuts and clothes that leave a show forever stuck in its era. Eli didn't remark on the disco feel of The Electric Company, but older kids do, according to Daniel R. Anderson, a kids-TV guru and psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Cartoons dominate kids' television because they age well. With reruns and DVD releases, the idea is to hook kids on a show that they'll one day want to watch again with their own kids, a strategy that has already worked for Sesame Street. More worrisome is the new shows' drift away from letters and numbers. A decision to put words on the screen kills a show's chances for globalization, because you can no longer simply (and cheaply) dub in Chinese for the English narration. As you might expect, says Anderson, it's harder to find funding for shows with a relatively limited audience.

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For the exception to the rule, he pointed me to Between the Lions, a reading show that began airing on PBS in 2000. The show has appealing lion puppets and a skit called "Gawain's Word" in which two knights rush at each other with two halves of a word and mush the letters together. In the episode Eli and I watched, the word was "wet" and the knights poured buckets of water over each others' heads. But Between the Lions, with a target audience in the 4-to-6 range, has a markedly younger feel than The Electric Company. Simon was interested. Eli, however wanted to ditch it for The Electric Company. "More happens and they go more places," he said. The lions are cuddly, but they're not as amusing as Bill Cosby or Spider-Man.

Or the Punctuation Brothers. One Electric Company skit features three members of a marching band. Each plays a different instrument, making sounds to match the qualities of a period, a question mark, and an exclamation point. We've been struggling to help Eli learn punctuation, with its tiny, abstract symbols. Last week, Eli was reading out loud to Paul and (finally) pausing at the end of each sentence. When Paul praised him, Eli said, "I know, Dad. This is how the Punctuation Brothers do it." Score one for television.

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