+ PBS Reboots “The Electric Company” for a New Generation

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Shooting begins in Washington Heights and the Lower East Side in New York City for an ambitious reboot of the PBS literacy series that turned on a generation of schoolchildren to the rudiments of reading.

As it was for the first incarnation of “The Electric Company,” the target audience this time is the linguistically disadvantaged child, who is often economically disadvantaged. 

Upper-income children can suffer the same language and literacy impoverishment  — parents are busier than they’ve ever been; they often “don’t have time” for reading to their children or having real conversations with them. 

But it is lower-income kids who are the largest group, and they are often already behind the eight ball by the time they reach kindergarten.  Karen Fowler, the show’s executive producer, says that for these children “by second grade language is flying by them, and they have no reference for it. That’s devastating.”

“The Electric Company” program in the ’70s was a companion piece to “Sesame Street” that relied on pun-filled sketches, Spider-Man cameos, and lots of primate shtick (a gorilla), all backed by a Motown beat.

Today’s version is being refitted for the age of hip-hop. 

But it is also informed by decades of further educational research on reading.   The 2009 version of “The Electric Company” will be a weekly, more danceable version of its former daily self. The series is expected to make its debut in January, 2009.

It faces challenges the original never did  — trying to stand out amid so much children’s programming and to shake the stigma of educational television.   Familiar challenges  exist as well — trying to make reading a positive experience for youngsters.

“It’s the old [show] mixed with ‘High School Musical’ and a Dr Pepper commercial,” said Linda Simensky, senior director of programming for PBS Kids, a block of children’s shows.  “The Electric Company” will be part of that block.”

There’s a touch of “Fame” to it, given its cast of culturally diverse city kids who sing and dance.  There are also nods to the original series: a cameo has been offered to Rita Moreno, a regular on the original “Electric Company,” who is remembered for her show-opening exultation, “Hey, you guyyyyys!”

Sesame Workshop (a nonprofit media corporation formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop) will once again produce.  The show it is still directed at viewers 6 to 9 years old, as it was when it began in 1971.

Ms. Simensky, 44, said the rebirth would be happy news for the Garanimals generation. “ ‘The Electric Company’ was my favorite show in third grade, along with Bugs Bunny,” she said.

The original show had ties to theater (many in the cast, like Morgan Freeman, had stage backgrounds).  So does the new one: head writer Willie Reale is a Tony-Award-nominated playwright and lyricist, with experience in children’s theater (“A Year With Frog and Toad”).

Mr. Reale establishes the show’s conceit in the first episode: Somewhere in the big city lies a natural-foods diner that is headquarters to a not-so-secret society known as the Electric Company.

Four semi-superheroes who meet there — Keith, Jessica, Lisa and Hector — have pledged not only to use their powers for good but also to eat sensible portions of healthy meals. The gang ranges in age from 13 to 20; they can scramble, recall, project and animate words in astounding ways.

A clutch of comical misfits and poseurs known as the Pranksters is plotting nefariously.

“They’re villains without being villainous,” said Scott Cameron, the show’s research director, “just neighborhood kids who cause chaos.”

The show  joins an expanding lineup of reading-readiness shows on PBS Kids. It is different from the original: each episode will emphasize vocabulary from five “conceptual domains” (animals, the body, weather, ecosystems and the solar system); it will also tell a story in multiple acts, interspersed with splashes of animated and live-action lessons in phonics.

As the last of the Pranksters was being cast in late April, taping had begun in a small studio near Lincoln Center in Manhattan on short segments which will carry the show’s educational load. 

The curriculum has been forged over two years of research and testing.  “The Electric Company” will also undergo extensive testing during production and after its first season’s 26 episodes have been broadcast, as have all of Sesame Workshop’s projects.

The creators searched for a format that would smoothly incorporate educational goals. The most challenging: to reverse negative attitudes about reading among children in second and third grades.

Test audiences of low-income students in Baltimore, San Antonio and Carbondale, Ill., provided early indications that the series might be effective.

“The Electric Company” shone brightly in the old dull days of children’s TV. It remains to be seen whether a vigorous campaign to build awareness for the new version will cut through the clutter of diversions now available to children.

“Media has evolved and learning styles have evolved,” said Malore I. Brown, the project director, who as a child in Freeport, the Bahamas, picked up “The Electric Company” via a signal that drifted in from Miami.

“We want to make this a 360-degree experience.” That includes an online component along with a magazine being developed by Marvel Comics. Sneak-peek video will begin appearing on PBS in September.

The Sesame Workshop hopes to raise $25 million for the project,  The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has provided $17.7 million through the federal Department of Education. Twenty low-income, low-literacy pockets across the country will also be the focus of an extensive outreach program in the months leading to the show’s premiere.

There are plans for billboards, bus ads, notices in their dollar stores, television and radio ads, all about the power of reading.  Randell M. Bynum, who is coordinating the outreach, says “When the show comes on in January, these communities will have already been primed to the importance of reading and bombarded with resources.”

Ms. Bynum, the production team and cast members, have been testing strategies at P.S. 188 on Houston Street in the Lower East Side.

A group of that school’s students first- through fourth-graders recently screened a 30-minute demonstration of the series.  It included a music-video tribute to the transformational power of the silent E, the sneaky letter that can turn cap into cape and at into ate.

Music for the series will come from three people involved in the Broadway rap-salsa-pop musical “In the Heights”: the director Thomas Kail, the co-arranger and orchestrator Bill Sherman and the actor Christopher Jackson.

The beat-box artist Shockwave (Chris Sullivan) is in a class by himself.  Besides slinging hash at the Electric Diner, he speaks in one-word bursts only — no sentences — and appears in guises like the old show’s gorilla and a butcher who cleaves words.

But it is his D.J. routine that may be heard being mimicked on playgrounds next year. He appears to be scratching syllables from dueling turntables to form words. It all emanates from his “bruh-bruh-AIN, bruh-bruh-AIN, brain.”

The producers hope the show can help solve a huge problem: struggling students hit a wall in fourth grade.  That is the turning point — from then on school is no longer about learning to read, but reading to learn. 

source: NY Times article by Michael Davis on 5/12/08.  www.nytimes.com

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