How Children's Public Television Changed My Life

I was devastated to learn there are now commercials on PBS.  I didn’t realize this had happened, as I haven’t had proper television in ten years. It was like hearing someone mugged Fred Rogers. I was raised on PBS kids shows, which, at least in my day, where consistently more awesome than their cable equivalents. (Though Bill Nye the Science Guy will never trump Beakman’s World. I know, I know, commence the hate mail.)

I grew up on Sesame Street, in the pre-Elmo administration, when all anyone talked about was Big Bird (I still muse over the TARDIS-like properties of Oscar’s trash can.) I enjoyed Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, though even as a child I knew the ‘Street was way cooler than the ‘hood. (It wasn’t until adulthood that I learned of Fred’s speech to the U.S. senate that saved public television). I also watched, but never enjoyed, the absolutely inexplicable Ghost Writer, which kept me up nights. I swear I never understood a single episode, but I’m pretty sure it was all about a deaf, mute dead person who writes anagrams about criminal activity to children.

Then when I was thirteen my mother and step-father had a baby girl, Andrea, and I was introduced to a new generation of PBS television. By the time I was selling my action figures for gas money,* Andrea was developing television tastes of her own. Since it is socially acceptable for a toddler to scream and throw food at her teenaged brother, but not the other way around, Andrea ruled the remote. And so every morning before school, instead of MTV or the local news, we watched what she wanted, which was Channel 2, PBS.

It started with Teletubbies, which was a pleasant little headtrip at six in the morning. I remember being incensed over the Gay Tinky-Winky controversy. (And incidentally, I don’t care if he was an anatomically neutral non-sexual alien thing, that Teletubby was gay. The producers definitely wrote him that way on purpose, and I think it’s great.) I composed complex metaphysical schemas for the Teletubby world, about how they represented the internal demons of the Giant Floating Baby Head In the Sun, and since the subconscious knows no time, always wanted to do things over and over and over again.

The tubbies gave way to Between the Lions, a hip puppet variety show about lions running a library. It was part Sesame Street and part Electric Company, and featured hands-down one of the funniest kids segments ever, Fun With Chicken Jane:

Between the Lions wins extra points for doing an entire episode on sad books. I take this as antithetical to the insipid and psychotically cheerful Barney the Purple Dinosaur (which fell neatly between my and Andrea’s childhoods), in which every kid got a hole-in-one on the first try at mini golf, damn it that would never happen!

Another favorite PBS morning show from my sister’s era was Cyberchase, a cyberspace adventure show. This show started in an era when Ask Jeeves was a thing, and the terms cyberspace, interweb, and virtual reality were used interchangeably. The heroes battled Hacker, who I gather was trying to take over the internet or something. Their exploits incorporated proverbial math lessons, which, as a freshman in high school, I gobbled up (don’t laugh, this show is the reason I didn’t fail pre-algebra).

Cyberchase featured the vocal stylings of the inestimable Christopher Lloyd as the villainous Hacker, and Gilbert Gottfried as Digit the cyber…bird…thing, more or less reprising his role as Iago from Aladdin.

I liked Cyberchase for showcasing math, which other kids shows passed over in favor of well-worn topics like books or kindness. (It also featured occasional live action segments featuring Bianca Degroat, with whom I was, and am, infatuated.)

There were others that Andrea occasionally enjoyed but didn’t fall in love with. Maybe I would have loved these too, but like I said, the remote was in her hand. She wasn’t big on Caillou or  The Big Comfy Couch. There was also Zoom, which irked me, as in high school I wanted to be an actor and felt the ZOOMers weren’t authentic. She’d switch it over to Nickelodeon and we’d see what Sponge Bob was up to, or Dora the Explorer (who I’m confident hailed from Webster, MA, as nowhere else does “Dora” rhyme with “Explorer”). I considered telling her about the darker Nick days of Ren and Stimpy, but decided to let sleeping Chihuahuas lie.

And here’s the truth: PBS Kids is why I got into children’s literature. While the rest of my teenage world was steeped in adolescent pop culture and T.V., the shows on PBS managed to be super funny, super smart, and had such amazing sincerity and heart. They taught me that something can be wry without being cynical, and sweet without being saccharine. I still hope to someday write something as clever as Cyberchase, or thoughtful as Between the Lions. Though I primarily write for a young adult audience, I remember how these shows affected me as a teenager and I think a little bit of their sensibility works its way into my writing, ten years later. What teen (or adult) can’t due to listen, every now and then, to Fred Rogers’s song “What Do You Do With the Mad You Feel?”

This still brings tears to my eyes:

  • A total lie. I would *never* sell my action figures. Especially Megatron. Guys he was a robot that turned into a T-REX.
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8 comments

  1. I think your sister might have been watching around the same time, or a bit earlier than my daughter. I remember once putting Teletubbies on for when all her big cousins were over, to settle her down a bit before her nap. Next thing I knew all five of them, aged 2, 6, 10, 11 and 15 were mesmerized. Scary.

  2. This was beautiful, John. Thank you. I cried when Fred Rogers died, having been inspired most of my life by him. I often think about his little song about fear. “You can never go down, you can never go down, you can never go down the drain.” He risked, didn’t he? My now 80 year old father would stop everything he was doing to watch “Picture, Picture”–the best was about how crayons were made. Our kids were raised on PBS, too though eventually Power Rangers and their ways wooed our son to the neighbors at 4:00 pm.

  3. If you haven’t yet, you must watch the Curious George series on PBS. I think it is some of the best writing in children’s television EVER. The shows epitomize what you described – sweet without being saccharine, wry without being cynical. My husband and I often laugh out loud at some of the lines.

    The slower pacing of many PBS shows (Mr. Rogers was king here) is actually better for children’s brains, too. (One source: http://seattlemamadoc.seattlechildrens.org/fast-paced-media-and-4-year-olds-cartoons-on-the-brain/)

  4. Woo-hoo for never watching TV as a kid!!! We didn’t have cable; the only place I could watch TV was at my babysitter’s house. And then we went overseas, so again, no English-language cable. Instead, my parents had recordings of old shows like Wishbone, Bill Nye, and The Magic Schoolbus. I do remember watching some episodes of Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues at the babysitter’s, and I had a Blue’s Clues computer game growing up, but that was about it. I read books and played outside a lot (which probably meant I got into exponentially more trouble than I would have if I’d watched TV instead…)

  5. My daughter, who’s now 23, was obsessed with Ghost Writer. I hadn’t thought about that show for ages. We had to schedule our Sunday nights around episodes (because it was a serial; she had to know what happened). She was maybe 6 or 7, just starting to read, and these older kids who liked to read and write and solve mysteries really appealed to her sense of how the world should be. Were they incomprehensible? I remember them being more interesting than standard TV fare — sort of Twilight Zone meets Hardy Boys. I learned later the idea was developed at Harvard Ed. School, for whatever that’s worth.
    Back in the 70s, I watched the early days of Sesame Street and then Electric Company with my little sister. As a 15 yr. old big sister and again 20 yrs. later as a mother, I appreciated the CTW’s savvy at entertaining two audiences at once. On Electric Company, I remember being charmed by the “soap opera” Boy on Chair. On Sesame Street, I loved the pop song, TV and movie parodies: Monsterpiece Theatre with Alastair Cookie and the Loud Family. I still think Sesame Street’s Born to Add is better than that Springsteen song it imitates. (If there was a way to add media to a comment, I’d track it down on youtube. Humming to myself now: Kids like you and me, Baby, we were born to add.)

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