PBS goes for words with wit in new literacy programs
When Dorothea Gillim, creator of the new PBS children’s program WordGirl, compares her childhood media diet — Rocky & Bullwinkle, Bugs Bunny, The Electric Company — to more recent fare for kids, she worries the push for “appropriate” children’s TV has produced lackluster results.
“In the name of helping kids,” she says, “we have also inadvertently dumbed it down. Kids are more capable than we realize.”
For her, The Electric Company — as well as Daffy Duck’s spit-laden utterances of words such as “indubitable” and “indefatigable” — proved you don’t have to sacrifice entertainment and wit for education.
Gillim, e.p. at Soup2Nuts, a Scholastic Inc. company, calls her fast-paced, language-packed style “smart-funny,” and Linda Simensky, director of PBS childrens’ programming, says that describes exactly what she wants to put on PBS: smart, funny shows for smart kids. “My goal has been to bring that kind of TV back,” she says. “I think there’s been a real gap.”
The newest pubTV kids’ fare rolls out beginning Sept. 2, and it aims to entertain as well as educate. The most gripping parts of the new lineup — four shows among the PBS Kids and PBS Kids Go! offerings plus one from American Public Television — are, well, the funny parts. In the case of WordGirl, they may even cultivate a quirky humor reminiscent of The Simpsons.
There may be room for more humor in kids’ pubTV shows, but educational gaps are what drive program development — particularly at PBS, which is nurturing the system’s longtime alliance with early-childhood educators.
The shows coming to PBS this fall and next (Current's list), says Simensky, aspire to fill both national gaps in education and PBS’s own curricular crevices. They’re bringing in strong math, science and literacy programs, and with those basics covered, she hopes later season lineups for preschool kids (PBS Kids) and early elementary ages (PBS Kids Go!) will add shows that aim to teach in such areas as music and learning disabilities.
Simensky, who came to PBS from Time Warner’s Cartoon Network in 2003, has been asking producers for shows with “more entertainment, more education.” It’s clear to her that the creators of PBS’s new kids’ shows conceived their programs around educational goals. Developing curriculum takes time, with research to do and experts to consult. In her experience, the shows on PBS take six months to a year longer to develop than those on cable or commercial TV. A new preschool math program already in development at WGBH, for example, isn’t scheduled for release until 2010.
Ad-driven commercial TV moves faster, of course, because it’s much less beholden to such curricular aspirations. PBS, conversely, has a somewhat less urgent desire for ratings and an undeniable lust for educational cred.
This fall, three new PBS programs focus on literacy — Super Why! and WordWorld for preschoolers and WordGirl for grade-schoolers.
Super Why! and WordWorld are both funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Ready to Learn Initiative (through CPB, the grant recipient), which seeks to improve reading skills, particularly among low-income families.
Super Why! stars six-year-old Whyatt Beanstalk (younger brother of Jack), who calls his “book club” to order (with a hand-held wireless device) when trouble arises in Storybrook Village. The show’s three other characters — all from classic fairy tales — transform into superhero “Super Readers” who literally jump into books to find answers to problems. Along the way, they learn to spell new words.
Creator Angela Santomero explained the program’s interactivity at a briefing for TV critics in July: “[The characters] ask kids at home the questions and have them practice the key skills that they need to learn to read as deemed important by the National Reading Panel, like letter identification and word decoding and encoding and reading comprehension.” (The panel of educational experts was formed in 1997 at the request of Congress to examine approaches to teaching reading.)
In WordWorld, produced by Word World LLC, and WTTW National Productions, the characters are the words — Ant’s body, for example, is made up of the three letters in his name. Each word-character has a funny, distinctive personality, such as “shy, demure, self-effacing” Sheep and brainy Frog. Objects in WordWorld are also made up of letters, such as the barn, dust and a pot.
Creator Don Moody wanted to make a children’s show, and he knew there was a need for literacy skills. “I spent about two-and-a-half years studying literacy and trying to think about what I could uniquely bring,” he says. After all, he says, PBS was his babysitter when he was little, and he had a kind of crush on PBS.
WordWorld offers a kind of wordplay that could delight preschoolers. In one episode, says Moody, “Duck, who’s yellow and whose body is made up of d-u-c-k, runs into Truck, who’s yellow and whose body is made up of t-r-u-c-k. So Duck mistakes Truck for his long-lost cousin. It’s pointed out that, of course, they are part of the same family—but it’s a word family.”
Of the new shows, WordGirl may come closest to Simensky’s “smart-funny” objective. The quick, feisty humor has adult appeal, and she predicts it will get attention in unexpected places. “We try to make a show we would want to watch,” says Gillim, who points out that an educational discussion is more likely to blossom if parents watch with their children.
The show features a regular girl who turns into a superhero when trouble arises in her town. Each of her adventures repeatedly exposes kids to four selected vocabulary words. Gillim says the curriculum goals stem from a landmark 1996 study that found six-year-olds from higher-income families knew twice as many words as children from low-income families.
“When I created WordGirl,” said Gillim at a briefing for TV critics, “I thought: Wouldn’t it be cool if eloquence were a superpower just like super strength and super speed? And wouldn’t it be cool if the superhero came in the form of a 10-year-old girl of ambiguously ethnic origin, so she could serve as a role model for kids, particularly those who may not see themselves represented on TV? And wouldn’t it be cool to do a show that’s both educational and entertaining in the tradition of a show that had a huge impact on my life —The Electric Company?”
She adds: “And wouldn’t it be great if she had a monkey sidekick?” So, with the help of primate sidekick Capt. Huggy Face, Word Girl foils the schemes of Chuck the Evil Sandwich Making Guy, bank-robbing Granny May, the Butcher who butchers the English language, and Doctor Two-Brains, who accidentally fused a mouse brain with his own. She talks — a lot — along the way, spouting vocabulary, taking command of situations and outsmarting dumb adults.
“Smart” alone isn’t good enough for shows like hers, however. Just because educators, parents or funders are satisfied that the shows are sufficiently educational doesn’t mean kids will find them sufficiently compelling.
Carol Greenwald, the producer behind WGBH hits Arthur and Curious George, believes a great story jumps out at kids more than a new look or other gimmicks. She’s working on a new show, Martha Speaks, a Ready to Learn program that will come to PBS in fall 2008.
“That’s one of my hobbyhorses — strong narrative storytelling, for any age,” she says. Shows for kids can’t have substandard writing just because they’re for kids, she insists.
The discussion about what makes a good kids’ show, however, assumes that television teaches well. “Is television the best way to teach children to read? Not as long as there are schools and books,” says Simensky. “But there are things that TV can do that a book might not be able to do—for instance, how is the word pronounced? When you model things in a positive way, kids see it and they pick up on it.” Simensky points to the Ready to Learn stats and goals: “It’s particularly significant for kids coming from lower-socioeconomic-status households that might not have that modeling.”
Deborah Linebarger, professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. “We know from other, very detailed work that kids pick up words from watching high-quality educational programming,” she says. “If you have kids who tend to want to watch more TV — versus reading on their own — you have a real avenue to bring kids into wanting to read more on their own. It is my belief that children learn more when the stimuli come in multiple modalities — visual, auditory, a combination of the two.”
Still, there are skeptics. Some would say watching a whole two-hour block of PBS Kids borders on unhealthy. In a statement about children and television, the American Academy of Pediatrics says, “Until more research is done about the effects of TV on very young children, the [academy] does not recommend television for children age 2 or younger. For older children, the academy recommends no more than 1 to 2 hours per day of educational, nonviolent programs.”
And what about kids who consume no books and lots of TV? Dorothy Singer, co-director of the Television and Consultation Center at Yale University, worries that parents are choosing TV over books.
“Television has taken over the role of the parent in many respects, and more and more children are looking to TV stories rather than actually touching a book or having someone read to them all the time,” she says. “I think one of the most important things in a parent-child relationship — the bonding — is that story that you read before you put your child to bed at night. And many times in our research we hear parents say, ‘Okay, he can watch his favorite program and then he goes to bed.’ My feeling is, ‘Don’t let that be the way you put your child to bed.’”
The number of electronic screens in children’s lives — TVs, computers, portable DVD players, iPods — will continue to multiply. The history of pubTV for kids, however, has a much deeper, predigital history. The current proliferation of children’s programming stems from a tradition of concern with child development.
As Super Why! creator Santomero said to TV critics in July: “Mister Rogers was a huge inspiration for me. He was the first to talk directly to the kids at home and empower them, and I think that level of connection and bonding ... has been an inspiration for my work from the beginning.”
Web page posted Sept. 3, 2007, updated Sept. 10
Copyright 2007 by Current Publishing Committee