Monday, May 12, 2008

Keep Good Company

The AP wire reports the following:

LOS ANGELES (AP) - In an updated blast from the past, PBS will air a new version of the 1970s children's series "The Electric Company."
Production on the 21st century model of the PBS show for 6- to 9-year-olds was set to begin Tuesday on the streets of New York City and in a New Jersey studio, according to producer Sesame Workshop.
The series, aimed at reducing the literacy gap between low- and middle-income families, will promote the idea that "reading is cool" with help from online and community-based activities, Sesame Workshop said in an announcement Monday.
"The literacy crisis today is as pervasive and alarming as it was in 1971 when we created the first version of `The Electric Company,'" said Scott Cameron, director of education and research for Sesame Workshop (which is the nonprofit educational organization behind "Sesame Street").
Weekly episodes of "The Electric Company" are scheduled to air nationally in January 2009 on PBS Kids.

End quote.

I was born at just the right time to benefit from the Golden Age of kids' PBS. Great shows like the original "Sesame Street" (Pre Elmo), "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," "Zoom," and the initial incarnation of "The Electric Company" all helped forge my steel-trap brain.

So now you know who's to blame.

Updating "The Electric Company" is a fine idea and one I'm surprised they haven't done before. Sadly, updating usually means frenetic pacing and high-tech gloss: you know, the things that make reading so "cool."

The stumbling block here is that reading ain't cool. It's never going to be cool. Reading is a lot of things including fun and stimulating and a refuge. But cool? Nuh-uh.

But they'll try. They'll buff all their graphics up to a high sheen and cram slam-cuts into every nook and cranny of the show, hoping against hope that they'll be able to pry a few kids away from their Wiis. But they're going to fail and I'll tell you why.

It has nothing to do with the flashy competition.

They will fail because they will inevitably allow the show to be run by the educators and the child psychologists; well-meaning, learned people, I'm sure, but exactly the wrong people to be put in charge of a television program.

Like it or not, TV functions first and foremost as entertainment. Once you've taken care of the entertainment, then you can sneak some of that "Good For You" stuff in. But make the entertainment an afterthought, and you will have a dull, preachy program.

Need evidence? "Blue's Clues." "Dora the Explorer." Shudder. "Barney." Double shudder. And just about anything from the Post Elmo PBS line-up. All shows crafted with great care by nurturing professionals. All utter garbage.

The great PBS kids shows of the past were put together by TV people, rather than doctors with degrees and good intentions. Sure, they had an educational mandate, but they also had writers and actors with genuine imagination and a sly subversive wit. Even the sedate "Mr. Rogers Neighborhood" indulged in bizarre flights of fancy (Purple Pandas, anyone?) and boasted characters who cheerfully modeled naughty behavior (Lady Elaine Fairchild, I'm looking at you!). Such things are verboten on children's television now.

So here's hoping that the new "Electric Company" will proudly bear the standard of the ingenious original. But once the psychologists get their paws on it, I fear the blandest.

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