Cast members call for letters

Zoom "at its heart is a literacy show," says Taylor. Above, pilot cast members call for kids to send in letters and other creations.

Zoom, zoom, zooma-zoom

Kid-power comeback for new generation

Originally published in Current, March 17, 1997

By Karen Everhart Bedford

Zoom, a signature show from public TV's early years, is being revamped for a new generation of children, the offspring of late boomers.

To those who watched it, the original Zoom was a hallmark of childhood in the '70s.

"Much like Gilligan's Island, it was part of the collective consciousness of the time," comments Patrick Wickham, production manager for the Independent Television Service, who got into Zoom as a youngster.

"It was a show in which seven kids, ages 9 to 10, performed and acted out skits and rapped and basically just played," recalls David Alberico, a former cast member who grew up to be a jack-of-all-trades in entertainment media. "All the material was written and sent in by kids." A cast of children interpreted and performed "very spontaneously" before TV cameras.

"It was easy for kids to relate to it, because there was an essence of themselves in each one," he explains.

The new Zoom, nicknamed "reZoom" at WGBH, follows the same concept--an information and idea exchange--but with several twists that reflect how times have changed. The catchy song that invited '70s viewers' ideas by mail (and subversively implanted the 'GBH zip code in the brains of an entire generation of youth), is now a rhythm-driven tune that calls for "e-mail, z-mail, fax or phone." Cast members no longer wear uniform striped shirts, but choose their own '90s playwear.

Choreographed renditions of "I've Been Working on the Railroad," or "This Land Is Your Land" are gone and a new science emphasis blended in. "In a way, science was always a part of the old Zoom, but not in a calculated, conscious sense," says Executive Producer Kate Taylor, who also was a producer for the original series. New segments will be directly related to math and science or will subtly introduce kids to scientific thinking.

Hayley reports on pet surveyFor example, in the Zoom pilot now circulating among funders, boys at the Weston School test their designs for racing cars propelled by balloon exhaust. One articulate youngster explains how he came up with a unique design to accommodate an extra-long balloon. In another segment, three girl cast members conquer a "structural challenge" by making a paper bridge between two cups that's strong enough to support a bar of soap. Math becomes funny when Hayley, the youngest cast member, reports on a viewer pet survey and extrapolates how many dogs are in the audience.

Kids like kid-power

Interspersed among science bits are segments that old Zoomers surely would recognize. Cameras follow the episode's "Zoomguest," a girl stage manager, as she prepares for a children's theater performance of Les Miserables. "I might not be in the spotlight," she says with some pride, "but I'm in charge of the spotlight."

In the "Zoomrap" segment, cast members lounge in a big circular sofa, and puzzle over dating behaviors of their prepubescent peers. They compete in a rhythmic, clapping game of passing cups around a table. (The loser extends her hand in good sportsmanship.)

And there's the call for material: "Hey guys, listen up! We need something new. So we're calling on our writers--that means you," the cast raps enthusiastically.

Viewers' submissions include on-camera confessions of kids' most embarassing moments, haiku read by the cast, and animations produced by viewers. Enid, a cast member whose family is from Puerto Rico, delivers a call for ideas in Spanish. Ubbi Dubbi, the secret lingo of '70s Zoomers, makes a comeback.

"The show, at its heart, is a literacy show," says Taylor. It offers kids many different ways to communicate their ideas and interests. "We're empowering kids to express themselves and understand the value of what they have to say, and respect and value what other kids have to say to them."

The National Science Foundation already has endorsed Zoom for the '90s, contributing its first major grant, $1.8 million. Taylor needs about $8 million to produce 40 episodes by the fall of 1998. She's awaiting another major funding decision before launching Zoom into preproduction.

Kids have also given rave reviews to the Zoom pilot, in research conducted by Arc Consultants. "The appeal in general was just over the top," says Pat Tobin, project manager for children's studies. "We don't see that a lot."

"They thought it was really cool that there were just kids on the show," and got a "tremendous sense of kid-power" from it. "They had trouble comparing it to anything else they had seen."

In addition, the math and science segments were the "essence of the appeal." "The kids were completely engaged in the show. They weren't like, 'This is the educational part. This is what I'm supposed to learn.' "

In the ether, again

The idea to bring back Zoom had been circulating around 'GBH for years before Taylor took up the assignment. "Somehow we just decided in a children's [staff] retreat that the time was right," she recalls. "Television had moved farther and farther and farther from the kind of freshness and realness and real-kid feeling that Zoom had." With the advent of the Internet, voice mail and home video, "there seemed to be lots of different ways now that kids could express themselves to a new Zoom," offering "a way to jack it up to a new plane."

"The public was demanding this show," Taylor adds. Many 'GBH staffers, whatever department they worked in, had witnessed people singing Zoom's zip code tune upon hearing the call letters WGBH. "Zoom as a brand name was coming to be known again," explains Taylor. "The people who had embraced it in their hearts and souls as kids were coming of age and had children who could be potential watchers. They were in positions of power to make funding decisions."

In what must have been the build-up to today's full-blown nostalgia for the '70s, articles began appearing in hipster magazines Details, Wired and Swing about Zoom. Last month in a MediaWeek profile, Nicholas Butterworth, c.e.o. of the SonicNet music web site, said his experience as a Zoom cast member gave him confidence. Rosie O'Donnell recently confessed in an America Online chat that she wanted to produce a pilot of Zoom. Saturday Night Live also recently did a parody of the show in which an actor impersonating Sen. Ted Kennedy spoke Ubbi Dubbi, according to Taylor.

"It seems like not a month goes by that something doesn't happen that's very unrelated to the fact that we're doing a new Zoom," says Taylor. "It's just in the ether."

Boomer Zoomers

Opening dance number of old seriesThis nostalgia for Zoom after two decades reflects the viewers' unique reaction to the show, according to Christopher Sarson, creator and first executive producer of the original series. "I am truly amazed at the things that people remember from the show," he says. It especially made an impression on people who are now 25 to 35.

Lisa Richards, an editor for the GED Testing Service in Washington, D.C., still remembers "Zoomguest" features. "It gave you a general idea of what life was like for different people, which was something missing on TV." She watched the show "rabidly" while growing up in New York City, wrote letters to Zoom and shared reactions to the show with a friend who lived in Boston and knew one of the cast members. "The content was not too simple, and appeared to be largely driven by the childrens' personalities and interests."

"Being on Zoom was like being a god," says ITVS's Wickham. The Zoom cast "ran around in stripey rugby shirts and talked about stuff. It was really appealling to me." He remembers making a volcano using styrofoam cups after seeing how to do it on Zoom. "It was empowering that you got to see other young people doing very groovy things."

"I have very vivid memories of trying to speak Ubbi Dubbi with great difficulty," recalls Jeannie Bunton, now CPB's press spokesperson. The show gave her a "neat peak about what other folks were up to" while she was growing up in South Carolina.

Ten thousand letters a week

Sarson also recalls the staff waiting anxiously for the first viewer mail from the debut episode, which aired on a Sunday in 1972. On Monday, there were no letters for Zoom, but by the following Thursday, the pile of mail had grown to 2,000 letters. "From that day on, until it went off the air, we averaged 10,000 letters a week."

There was one exception to that average, Sarson notes. During the series' second season, a story appeared in the New York Times that CPB was to end funding to Zoom. This was news to the producers, who promptly called back the next episode's tape from PBS and added an appeal by a cast member named Maura.

"She said, 'We learned this week that we may not be on next year. If you care about this, send us a photo and a letter,' " he recalls. Zoom's producers received some 30,000 letters and photos, plastered them on a "huge sheet of wallpaper" and unfurled it in CPB headquarters. The show continued until 1978. ...



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Outside link: WGBH's web site for Zoom.


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