ZOOM, a half-hour PBS show for 7-to-12-year-olds, was ’70s kids’ culture in a nutshell: brightly colored, optimistic, utopian, short-lived. The show was part of the educational TV boom of that decade, which was kickstarted by the establishment and funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS in the late sixties and early seventies. The most famous show of that kind is, of course, Sesame Street, for younger kids, but there was also Electric Company, for elementary schoolers, and a scattering of regionally-produced shows: Hodgepodge Lodge from Maryland, Vegetable Soup from New York.
ZOOM, which ran from 1972 to 1978, was a Boston show (produced by local affiliate WGBH), but it was distributed to around 200 PBS stations around the country, and won an Emmy award in 1973. Historian Leslie Paris wrote an online exhibit on ZOOM’s history for the American Archive of Public Broadcasting that went up earlier this year. In February and March of 1975, Paris said in an interview, if you go by Nielsen ratings, “more kids were watching ZOOM than watching Sesame Street” in major cities. “That makes sense,” she said, “because the age range of potential ZOOM viewers was larger than that of Sesame Street, so kids watched over a greater number of years.” In the archives of the show, Paris found mail from kids so young they had dictated letters to their parents, and also from teenagers who confessed they sensed that the show was now too young for them, but they just couldn’t stop watching.
An opening sequence from the third season.
There were between seven and 10 ZOOMers—preteen cast members—on the show, depending on the season. The kids were paid for their work, but they weren’t doing this full-time; they continued in school, and each stayed in the cast for only thirteen weeks. The introduction to the show gave each of the current ZOOMers a small cameo to do a signature “move” (a somersault, a little dance), and called for viewers to get involved (“Who are you? What do you do? How are you? Let’s hear from you! We need you!”)
“I think the best way to describe what actually happened at ZOOM is to call it intergenerational cultural production,” Paris said. She describes a careful balancing act on the part of the adults involved. ZOOM’s producers really wanted a participatory show that would demonstrate to watchers that this was a world created by children, but it wouldn’t be logistically possible to allow the kids to produce the show all by themselves. And so, Paris writes, “ZOOM was choreographed, organized, and edited by adults; rarely visible in episodes, these members of the production team were powerful partners behind the scenes.”
Each episode had segments, branded in ZOOMspeak: ZOOMovie, ZOOMchat, ZOOMguest. WGBH (Paris found in her research) was hoping to incorporate some of the DNA of contemporaneous variety sketch shows like The Great American Dream Machine and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, and so the episodes have a merry, manic feeling to them, hopping between bits.
One delightful ZOOM bit is the use of Ubbi Dubbi, a language where you put “ub” before the vowel sounds in words.* “Ubbi Dubbi was a secret language code that kids could use. This was something adults couldn’t follow,” Paris said. In this clip, even a fellow ZOOMer has trouble getting into it; ZOOM liked to acknowledge that skills were hard to learn.
Absurdist “advertising” segments done in Ubbi Dubbi are some of the most interesting ZOOM artifacts. ZOOM—whose creator and producer (Christopher Sarson) was married to an activist with Action for Children’s Television, a group that tracked advertisements and product placement in kids’ TV—kept commercialism at arm’s length as an inherent part of its ethos.* The craft projects on the show used household items, and while you could buy ZOOM books and record albums, there weren’t any other ZOOM-branded products. “In that way, it was a reflection of the reach of the counterculture of the era, and its focus on environmentalism, recycling, and authenticity,” Paris said. The Ubbi Dubbi “commercials” show that the ZOOMers shared some of the adults’ skeptical attitudes toward advertising’s ubiquity on TV.
A cast of ZOOMers talk about what it’s like to be on ZOOM.
Tons of kids wrote in, asking to be on the show. In my conversation with Paris, I wondered if these ZOOMer wannabes were an ironic byproduct of putting kids on TV: Even if you’re making a show about free-and-easy, non-commercial childhood, the end result is … you make more kids want to be on TV! But: “I think kids wanted to be on ZOOM, rather than be on TV in general, after watching it,” Paris said. The show got letters offering to move to Boston to be on ZOOM. There was a form letter that it sent back to such correspondents, explaining that cast members had to already live in Boston. And kids who went on ZOOM had to sign a contract precluding appearances in advertisements for several years after their cast stint. “There was a real effort to insulate cast members from becoming celebrities,” Paris said.
At least one kid who sent in a story to ZOOM went on to be a writer. “The Color-Eyed Dragon,” a short story about a dragon who could change the color of his eyes, and hides inside a traffic light to teach people a lesson about the value of his strange talent, was read out loud on the show in Season 2, Episode 3. The tale was sent in by young Jonathan Lethem, of New York City, who would later become … Jonathan Lethem.
Generally, ZOOM dealt with issues of race, gender, and difference by modeling inclusion. The clip above is an interesting outlier: a ZOOMrap about the school busing controversy in Boston, which came to a violent crescendo in 1974, during the show’s fourth season. In it, one of the ZOOMers, from South Boston, voices a segregationist viewpoint, and the others push back at her proclamation; eventually, she agrees with others in the group that people will need to learn to live in peace. It’s a confusing moment, as the busing controversy doesn’t get a direct explanation, and one wonders what young viewers unapprised of the news might have thought. Some other ZOOMraps were focused on the question of prejudice, but the discussions tended to be about evergreen issues (what’s it like to go to the hospital?). “I think the episode on busing is so uncomfortable because it exposes a fault line in ZOOM’s celebration of diversity and multiculturalism,” Paris said. “The rap showed that kids’ identities could also put them at odds with one another, personally and politically.”
ZOOM got about 10,000 letters a week from kids—sometimes, Paris said, twice that many. Adult volunteers sorted the mail, and some of it got read out loud, like Lethem’s story, or otherwise used on the show. “I saw one document in the archive suggesting that about a third of the letters were requests for ZOOM cards,” which explained more about how to do skills shown on the show, Paris said. A third were affirmations—“I love the show so much!” The rest were suggestions for segments: recipes, craft projects, or discussions that could be ZOOMraps.
Some viewers wrote in about their problems, like the address was an advice column. Kids of color, who had fewer chances in the seventies than now to see themselves represented on television, often wrote directly to the ZOOMers of their own race. Some wrote in saying that they had crushes on members of the cast—these were “what we might call, today, parasocial relationships,” Paris said.
Until this first version of ZOOM was canceled for lack of funding in 1978 (a resurrected series had a brief run in the early 2000s), the letters inbox, like ZOOM itself, served as a public square for American kids’ culture: the creative, the heartfelt, and the very, very silly.
Correction, Feb. 22, 2022: This piece originally misspelled Christopher Sarson’s last name.
Correction, March 9, 2022: This piece originally misstated that in Ubbi Dubbi the syllable “ubbi” is added before vowel sounds. The syllable added is “ub.”