Turn It On

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

My husband, Paul, grew up without a television. Periodically, he threatens to break ours. He thinks that TV, no matter how “educational,” inevitably fosters brain-softening passivity. I’d like to prove him wrong. But the cartoon-heavy line-ups on PBS Kids and Nickelodeon’s Noggin don’t help my case much. These shows are supposed to be educational— Blue’s Clues emphasizes “thinking skills,”Dora the Explorer is flavored with Spanish, Arthur features “pro-social” scripts—but there’s a lot more sugar than spinach, and nary a letter or number in sight. Other than Sesame Street, almost nothing on TV teaches basic schoolbook skills.

It wasn’t always so. Remember The Electric Company? In the 1970s, Bill Cosby and Spider-Man helped teach me and a lot of other kids how to read. Now the EC is coming out on DVD. The show and its history embody the old, hard-core aspirations of educational television—and illustrate why, for the most part, they’re probably gone for good.

TheElectric Company debuted in 1971, three years after the formation of the Children’s Television Workshop, and aired original episodes through 1977 before repeating in reruns. Instead of using puppets and grounding the show in a home base, as Sesame Street does, the EC used a live cast to teach reading concepts through skits, songs, and dances. The idea was to reach older, struggling kids as well as kindergartners and first-graders by offering non-babyish material. The show played like a Saturday Night Live for the 6-to-9 set—a series of gags and spoofs in quick succession. “HEY, YOU GUUUYYYS!” screams cast-member Rita Moreno after Bill Cosby tells her to speak quietly so as not to disturb the occupants of the house they’re delivering milk to in the early morning. “Who is it?” a parrot asks in the voice of his owner. “It’s the PLUMBER! I’ve come to fix the sink!” the poor plumber is forced to repeat, ad infinitum. “It wasn’t aimed at the little geniuses. It was vaudeville,” Moreno says on her DVD interview. “We were always trying to sneak the lesson in.”

The Electric Company producers signed up top performers like Moreno because they had money and because their timing was good. With the anti-war and civil rights movements as points of reference, Moreno says, she wanted to do something to help save the world. Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, and Irene Cara joined her in the original cast. Stan Lee collaborated on a recurring Spider-Man short. Maurice Sendak wrote copy. So did Tom Lehrer—he’s to thank for the EC tune my brain has never let go: “The Silent E.”

Before Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, both of which went on the air in the late 1960s, children’s television consisted either of static shots of book covers and illustrated pages, or of a cooing host planted in the midst of too-cute children in a classroom or a magical spot. The innovation of the Children’s Television Workshop was to create memorable characters and to cut rapidly from skit to skit to cartoon short, in a “hip, popular style” and “with frequent ‘winks’ to adult viewers,” as Edward Palmer and Shalom Fisch, CTW veterans, write in the book G Is for Growing. But in the 1990s, Sesame Street was attacked for its pace. Critics argued that all the quick cutting exacerbated the problem of short attention spans. Research has indeed shown that preschool-age kids have difficulty following lots of transitions. As a result, Sesame Street now adheres to a more measured format, and the Nickelodeon show Blue’s Clues doesn’t use cuts at all. But The Electric Company’s intended elementary-school audience can handle the rapid-fire format.

Three decades later, the EC’s original pedagogy remains remarkably sound. The latest research shows that kids retain new words better if they learn them in the context of a story—an insight that many EC skits intuitively harnessed. And the show got kids to talk back to the screen, by prompting them to read words aloud, long before “interactive” became a programming buzzword.

Still, when I brought the Electric Company DVD home recently, I was wary. Would the show seem dated and didactic? I settled down on the couch with Eli, 6, and Simon, 3, to watch the first episode. Simon sat through the opening song (“We’re gonna turn it ooonn/ We’re gonna bring ya the powwaahh”), and then departed to play with his firehouse. Eli also seemed uncharmed at first. He fidgeted as the cast members awkwardly introduced themselves: “How ya doing?” “How ya feeling?” “Ain’t it great to be alive?” But then the skits got going. Dressed as an ice-cream man, Bill Cosby took a call from J. Arthur Crank.

“How do you like the show so far?” Cosby asked.

“So far, no good,” Crank said.

His complaint: How could the letter “G” have two sounds? Cosby talked him through groups of words—”gas, get, gum” and “giant, magic”—as they appeared on the screen. “Aw, I see,” Crank said. “You must have two guys in charge of ‘G.’ Gary and George. Get it?” Eli pointed to the screen. “Hey, Mom, get it?” he asked.

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.

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.