June 09, 2006

The future held such promise

Where the hell did we go so wrong?

Twenty-five years ago, I grew up watching a bunch of different kid's TV shows. What was on then? Sesame Street. Pinwheel. The Electric Company (in reruns). Mister Rogers. Today's Special. 3-2-1 Contact. Most of them on Channel 11, Chicago's PBS station, a few on Nickelodeon.

You know what they weren't? Toy commercials. You could get a couple of Sesame Street-related things, but nothing like today; 3-2-1 Contact had an affiliated magazine that was itself pretty educational.

You know what else they weren't? Completely inane. In the past few years, I have had the misfortune to see a few pieces of children's programming, and it's like aliens invaded between the early 1980s and now. Adults watch "modern" educational programming and feel their brains slowly melting out. But, find an Electric Company clip on YouTube and, whether you get a nostalgia burst or no (I don't, actually; although I recognise the theme song I don't remember any of the characters or scenes from that show) you get the feeling that you could watch whole episodes of it.

And the most important thing that they weren't? Patronising. Every one of them is clearly children's programming, and yet they treated their audiences like people, and they educated them. They didn't just socialise them, which is what the newer shows seem to be doing, afaict. When kids were present in the shows, the adults (and puppets, and animal sidekicks) would have conversations with them. (This probably contributes to the non-inanity, come to think of it.) They pitched it to their target audience, but you don't get the feeling that they held back things that might have been too hard; their job was to get kids excited about knowledge and reading and learning and discovery.

Watch these clips: parts one, two, three, and four of the very first episode of 3-2-1 Contact, broadcast in 1980. There's stuff in there that I didn't learn until grad school; most of you would learn at least a few things from the episode. And although the technology is aged, I bet there would be at least a few things in there to make you go, "oh, cool!". But for all that, it's still clearly a kid's show from start to finish, nothing in there is truly out of reach for, say, a precocious eight-year-old, with most of it probably working just fine for a 6yo or younger.

So what happened? To my knowledge, there's nothing like this anymore. Any of it. Sesame Street is still on, but it's a very different sort of show than it used to be, with selfish, bratty Elmo promoted as its flagship, a paragon of childly virtue (available in six tickle-me variants for just $30 each!). Mister Rogers and some others are still in reruns in some places. But what have they been replaced with? Patronising, mind-numbing, inane, feature-length toy commercials.

The Electric Company put it on the line, right in the intro: "We're gonna bring you the power." An all-star cast on your TV day after day helping you learn to read—no matter what your race, gender, or class—to give you the power to do whatever you wanted to do, be whatever you wanted to be. The others, even without the famous people in the cast, aren't something just to keep your kid distracted and give you a break. They're the real deal, funded by groups like the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Education and of course the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to make kids excited about learning.

What the hell happened?

"The Ten Commandments are not a series of 'No', but a big 'Yes' to love and to life." --Pope Benedict XVI

Posted by blahedo at 3:23am on 9 Jun 2006
Market fundamentalism. Posted by Michael at 5:59pm on 10 Jun 2006
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