Classic Children's TV Show Makes A Comeback

"The Electric Company," the children's TV classic, has returned to television and is likely to win over a whole new generation of fans. Regular contributors Jolene Ivey and Shawn Spence are joined by Scott Cameron, whose production company is behind the program's anticipated revival.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, our take on the Grammy picks. But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. And somewhere along the way, they might have sat their kids down to hear this.

(Soundbite of theme song of "The Electric Company")

It's coming down the line, strong as it can be, through the courtesy Of the Electric Company The Electric Company...

MARTIN: That's the theme song for "The Electric Company," the educational children's series aired on public television in the 1970s. And after a 30-year hiatus, it is back. The mission's the same - help promote literacy. We find that about 27 percent of fourth graders in public schools score below level on reading exams according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education. "The Electric Company" aims to help these elementary school-aged kids who've outgrown "Sesame Street." To talk about it, I'm joined by Scott Cameron. He's director of education and research for Sesame Workshop. That's the producer of "The Electric Company." Also here with us is Jolene Ivey. She's a regular Tell Me More contributor to our parenting segment. She's the mom of five. And Shawn Spence, she's also the mom of five and a regular contributor. I welcome you all.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, Michel.

SHAWN SPENCE: Hey, Michel.

Mr. SCOTT CAMERON (Director of Education and Research, Sesame Workshop): Hi.

MARTIN: And welcome, Scott.

Mr. CAMERON: Thank you, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, tell us about the relaunch of "The Electric Company." What's new about it, and what's different from the first version?

Mr. CAMERON: There's a lot of new stuff in there. One of the things that we had to face when we were recreating the show was the fact that kids' media habits have changed. And obviously there's this thing called the Internet that wasn't around when I was a kid watching "The Electric Company" in the '70s. So, kids are online a lot more. They're playing a lot of computer games and handheld games. But they're also watching narrative programs. There's just a lot of programming aimed at kids these days that the original "Electric Company" didn't really have to contend with. And so, we've instituted a narrative into the show, so there's a storyline with recurring characters in every episode. And that also helps us get at vocabulary because, since the original "Electric Company" launched, about 35 years ago, we've discovered, and a lot of literacy experts have done research on the fact that vocabulary is a really big part of learning to read. And so, we've added vocabulary to "The Electric Company" curriculum. So, the storylines allow us to really get at four or five vocabulary words per episode.

MARTIN: I notice that in your press materials that the 1971 version was designed for kids aged seven to 10, and this one is designed for kids aged six to nine.

Mr. CAMERON: Mm hmm.

MARTIN: Why the lower - slightly lower age target?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, part of it's because over the past 30-odd years we've really been able to focus, in literacy research, on what the needs are for struggling readers. And it's become really clear that first and second graders need a lot of literacy support. And if we don't reach seven- and eight-year-olds by the time they leave second and third grade, we're probably going to lose them to a life of illiteracy.

MARTIN: Let's bring the moms in. Shawn and Jolene, each of you has five children, and - of spanning age ranges. Jolene, is educational television - has it been a part of your activities for your kids?

IVEY: It has been. And I'd rather that they watch something, quote, unquote, "educational," whatever that is, than just mindless cartoons. And I have to say...

MARTIN: But you're generally you're anti-TV, anti-tube.

IVEY: Well, I'm more pro-use your time in some other way. Go outside and play. I want them to do something more active and more involved, more creative. Everybody needs a break. And I have had my kids sit in front of that television. I don't - sometimes, I don't care what they're watching, just give me a break.

MARTIN: But you see it as a crutch and a negative,hat it is to be avoided.

IVEY: It's better to do something really wonderful with your parents or your siblings. But if you're not going to be doing that, I think "The Electric Company" would be OK.

MARTIN: Shawn, I want to come to you in just a second. But Scott, what about that? I mean, there are a lot of folks who just think that, however well intentioned, programs like "The Electric Company," "Sesame Street" are just a last resort, really.

Mr. CAMERON: Well, you know, I understand the idea that playing outside and reading and all of those activities are preferable. I mean, I agree. The reality, though, is that we're facing the statistics, and you quoted some of them at the beginning, where we have, in African-American communities, over 54 percent of African-American kids aren't at reading level. And when we go out - we've been testing the show over the past two years as we've developed it, and we go out into communities all across the country because we're federally funded. And when we sit down with six- and seven- and eight-year-olds, and we ask them about their home life, one question we always ask is, do you have books at home? Do you have magazines at home? Do you have newspapers at home? And it's really heartbreaking how many nos we get to those questions. So, for a lot of children, their parents or their caregivers just aren't as informed as other parents are, and they're not giving that kind of literacy support that we'd love to see, and they don't have reading materials at home. And sadly, a lot of their time is spent in front of a television.

MARTIN: Shawn, I want to bring you in. You have home schooled, at some point, each of your children. Tell me about your take on programs like "The Electric Company." Can educational television programs be part of your lesson plan?

SPENCE: They are, Michel, very much so. The exciting thing for me is that parents can share. We can engage. We sing the songs, The Walking Song, The Growing Song, so many songs that we remember from when we were children that we share now with our children. And so, this way I can sit still with them, bring them down a little bit. A lot of times we watch television prior to our naps. So, it gets them from their active activities of building because we do that, as Jolene said. But we also - it's kind of our calming time and it's our together time as well.

MARTIN: Do you feel it's a crutch, or do you feel it's a tool?

SPENCE: It's definitely a tool. We do library. We do a lot of reading. And I understand that not a lot of people have the books that we have at our home and the magazines. I mean, my gosh, God, I wish I could find a place where I can take all of my books and magazines (laughing) on a regular basis.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with Jolene Ivey and Shawn Spence, our Tell Me More regulars, and Scott Cameron about the upcoming relaunch of "The Electric Company." I want to play a short clip from the first episode of the new show. It's a lesson in teaching kids the difference between a hard "c" and a soft "c." And here it is.

(Soundbite of TV show "The Electric Company")

Mr. LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (Rapping) Oh, Shock, I love that beat. Everything you beatbox sounds so sweet But can you see what I see? He using the sounds of hard and soft "c" Kuh, As in cacophony or cold Cook, cake, calories I can't control Can you call me before you go?

Mr. CHRIS SULLIVAN: Cacaw

Mr. MIRANDA: Was that a canary or a crow? Soft "c" is also nice. At the end of words like rice or twice It sounds like an "s" but take my advice Sometimes you need a soft "c" to add that spice.

MARTIN: All right, I think I got it, my hard "c" and my soft "c." I got it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Scott, who we were we listening to? I think I recognize that voice as a Broadway star.

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah, you probably do. Chris Sullivan plays Shock on the show. And he does a lot of these types of segments with guest stars. And that guest star was Lin-Manuel from "In The Heights," he's...

MARTIN: Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Mr. CAMERON: Mm hmm, Lin-Manuel Miranda. And he wrote a lot of the music on "The Electric Company."

MARTIN: What do you think you're doing with this, is it using beatboxing and a star like Lin-Manuel to teach about the hard "c" and the soft "c?"

Mr. CAMERON: Beatboxing is really powerful because a lot of rapping and beatboxing is about making sounds, obviously, and using language, and trying to find the best word for something. And really analyzing the sounds and how you put those together. And kids love to mimic it. When we go out and we test these segments, this one in particular and a few others, where there's a lot of "k, k," you know, sounds that kids can actually make. Kids in the audience were watching it. They're always trying to follow along and do it and they love that.

MARTIN: Forget about kids. I want to do it. I was trying to do it.

Mr. CAMERON: I know. Let's find out how you do it.

SPENCE: Come on, Michel.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well, Jolene, are you still hating?

IVEY: Well, no, I don't hate, and if it weren't for television I don't know if I could have made it this far as a mother. I mean, there've been those times. As a matter of fact, when I was pregnant with, I think it was my fourth son, and I was so darn tired. And I was sorry I had made all these rules about when you could and couldn't watch television, I wanted to just shoot myself. So, I said you know what, it's time for a new rule. So, the rule was you could only watch television when mommy was taking a nap.

MARTIN: That's good.

IVEY: And if they were going to be watching, if there'd been "The Electric Company," I would have been thrilled if that's what they were watching while I was taking a nap.

MARTIN: But in speaking to you about this - and we've talked about this before - one of your concerns is, it's a passive experience where they kind of sit back and expect to be entertained, as opposed to being participatory. Scott, what's your response to that?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, I definitely think there is a lot of television out there that is geared towards just lulling you into passivity. What we try to do with "The Electric Company" is really get kids engaged. And it's hard for this age group, for six- to nine-year-olds, it's hard to get them to respond to what's happening on TV. Younger kids, when they're engaged with "Sesame Street" or "Dora" they're, kind of, prompted a lot to talk back to the television set, and that helps them with learning. For older kids, we really are trying to find new ways to get them to engage because...

MARTIN: Can I stop you there? Why is it harder at this stage? Are they worried about being cool?

Mr. CAMERON: Yeah. I think it's identified as being a little too babyish if you - if a character on screen says, hey, say it with me. That just feels too young. And kids at this age are just starting to find - they're really forming their identity, and they're trying to distance themselves from all things babyish. And so, we've really had to be very experimental and innovative in terms of finding ways to get kids to still sound out words, or make sounds along with people on the show, but to do it in a way that doesn't seem too babyish. And I think the clip you just showed is a good example of how we've been able to do something where kids will want to sing along and make sounds along with it. But we're not, kind of, engaging them as directly as we might if we were teaching four year olds.

MARTIN: Shawn, have you observed that with your kids if you - I heard what you're saying, you use television viewing in a very targeted way, as kind of wind-down time, when you're transitioning from one activity to another, where you want them to be a little bit more passive. But have you had any difficulty getting them to, sort of, pick it back up after they've been watching television, to not want to read? Have you noticed any effect on their attention span?

SPENCE: Yes, Michel, I have. It's funny that Scott mentioned the six to nine group in this particular hour. Because I just had a conversation with our six-year-old daughter about "Sesame Street," just this weekend. She says, oh, that's so babyish.

Mr. CAMERON: Mm.

SPENCE: So, what I'm hoping for, for shows like "The Electric Company," is sort of my six-year-old to be engaged again because she liked "Blue's Clues" and she'd like that engagement. So, I'm looking forward to that. For my older son, I do find television to be less - I don't encourage it as much, or I don't find him to be as interested. And so, he of course now is playing an instrument. And he doesn't watch as much television as the younger children.

MARTIN: And Jolene, final thought from you. You've got a nine - or is he just 10 - is he 10 now?

IVEY: The baby just turned nine.

MARTIN: Just turned nine.

IVEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: Just turned nine. So, thumbs up, thumbs down on "Electric Company?" Are you going to let him watch it or no?

IVEY: Oh, I would let him watch it. I don't know if he's going to choose to or not. I try to minimize it as much as I can them watching at all. So, if it's on at that moment and he turns it on, great. I do think...

MARTIN: So, no Grand Theft Auto for him for Christmas. That's not going to happen.

IVEY: (Laughing) No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

IVEY: But you know, I think that most people who listen to this show, it's a very intelligent group of people. And these are people who have books in their homes and have newspapers, and can use "Electric Company" and shows like it, like Shawn does, as a tool and not as a babysitter. But for the ones who need it as a babysitter, I'm glad that that kind of show is out there.

MARTIN: Scott, final thought from you. What kind of feedback are you getting about the new show, the relaunched version?

Mr. CAMERON: Well, as I said, we've been testing it a lot, and we were just out in Newark, New Jersey last week testing some episodes with the target age, six to nine year olds, and it's testing really, really well. So, we're all very relieved and very happy. What's been really interesting is getting feedback from older siblings that, you know, the nine, 10, 11, 12-year-olds because our hope in designing this new version was that we would get the older siblings to want to watch it because we have cool celebrities and we have great music, and really interesting animations and visuals, and a really compelling narrative, a storyline with characters who are about 13, 14 and older. Because we want those older siblings to watch it because a lot of the show and the Web activities and the outreach stuff we're doing in communities is about self-expression. And that's something that, no matter what your language and reading ability is, self-expression is something that everyone needs some fostering.

MARTIN: Well, I'm hoping you can get Lin-Manuel Miranda to teach me how to beatbox.

Mr. CAMERON: All right, well, we'll talk later.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Scott Cameron is director for education and research at Sesame Workshop, the producer of the newly relaunched "Electric Company," and he joined us from our New York bureau. Shawn Spence, a mom who home schools, and a regular Tell Me More contributor, joined us from member station WEAA. And Jolene Ivey, a regular Tell Me More contributor with five boys joined us from our Washington D.C. studios. Thank you everybody.

SPENCE: Thanks, Michel.

Mr. CAMERON: Thank you.

IVEY: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: For more information on "The Electric Company," please visit our Web site at npr.org/tellmemore.

(Soundbite of theme song of "The Electric Company")

The Electric Company The Electric Company The Electric Company

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