ZOOM (1972-1978): Children’s Community and Public Television in the 1970s
Children as Cultural Producers
Every episode of ZOOM drew upon the talents and ideas of two groups of children: ZOOMers, who performed in cohorts of seven to ten children per season and took part in the creation and editing of some ZOOM content, and the series’ youthful fans, who mailed in their suggestions, original content, and feedback. These two groups were always in dialogue with one another. Even as ZOOMers offered to teach viewers to “fly high,” their young audience provided most of the show’s content; even as viewers learned from ZOOMers, they were inspired to share their own materials.
ZOOM’s adult producers represented the series as authentically child-led. Yet while children generated many of its ideas, the demands of producing a successful weekly television show set important limits on their ability to determine its content, form, and style. With adult producers as overseers and intermediaries, ZOOM was an example of intergenerational cultural production; while its producers sought to advance children’s sense of themselves as empowered agents, the goal of creating a participatory television show for children was at least partly in tension with making the program appealing to its audience. ZOOM was choreographed, organized, and edited by adults; rarely visible in episodes, these members of the production team were powerful partners behind the scenes. Adults, not children, had professional connections and the training to keep the flow lively. All ZOOMers attended regular schools full-time, and none were professional performing artists prior to appearing on the show. Their “ordinariness” made them attractive on-screen; at the same time, relatively few preteens had the skill to carry more of the production load, let alone to do so in an entertaining way.
Consider the fate of a similar show, Take a Giant Step (NBC, 1971-72), which debuted when ZOOM was first in production. The conceit of Take a Giant Step was very similar to that of ZOOM: a mix of entertainment and information in a magazine format, with young teenage hosts on live television discussing issues of interest to a preadolescent audience. Like ZOOM, Take a Giant Step encouraged viewers to interact with the show by mail and floated the idea that some viewers could make their own films for use on the series. Unfortunately, contemporary reviewers found the rotating hosts on Take a Giant Step to be unpolished and awkward; these critics called the show’s concept innovative but found the overall effect uncomfortable and boring.23 ZOOM, on the other hand, appeared to have just the right amount of polish: enough to be well-paced, but not so much as to appear inauthentic.
ZOOMers did have a role in shaping the series’ content.24 At least some of the time, staff offered ZOOMers a choice of plays and poems submitted by viewers, and asked which materials the ZOOMers preferred to use.25 The fairly improvisational rehearsals on the WGBH set reflected this collaborative process between adults and children. As Jon, one of the first season ZOOMers, later recalled, “Initially we had a script to follow. I was supposed to go in to interview this kid who had invented something. I remember not understanding how I was supposed to behave. And they finally figured out that the more they let us play and improv, the better off they were.”26 Especially in season one, much of what became classic ZOOM material was based on improvisation. For example, one day, after ZOOMer Tracy was injured on set, Sarson gathered the other children to discuss their feelings about going to the hospital; this filmed conversation became the first ZOOMrap, a signature of the show.27 ZOOMers also wrote some material themselves. In season one, Nina sang a song she had written about a short-lived romantic relationship; in season four, the ZOOMers collectively scripted and helped to build the sets for the first episode of a parodic soap opera, “As the World ZOOMs”; in season five, ZOOMer Jennifer read a poem she had written about becoming a teenager.28
A creative ethos was a hallmark of the series. Numerous former ZOOMers later recalled that their auditions seemed designed to assess their inventiveness. When Cate auditioned for season four, the members of her audition group were asked to read an imaginary letter plucked from an imaginary treasure chest; she later reflected that she had done well to add a detail—a padlock on the chest—to her performance.29 Such skills served ZOOMers well on set. For example, one newspaper reporter who watched ZOOM rehearsals saw ZOOMers Jay and Kenny rolling the ZOOM barrel from one end of the television studio to the other, with ZOOMer David scrunched up inside. “Watch this, Billy!” David called out to Billy Wilson, the show’s first choreographer. Wilson replied, “We’ll use it!”30 On another occasion, the ZOOMers gathered to discuss “Where’s the Report Card?” a play submitted by a fifteen-year-old boy from Maryland. Sarson led the children through the script, allowing them to digress and to suggest their own riddles and jokes, all the while guiding them until they had refined the dialogue and action to their collective satisfaction. A visiting newspaper reporter described the scene as “utter chaos.”31
To consider ZOOM as an example of intergenerational collaboration is not to diminish the role of children as cultural creators. Ultimately, the roles of children and adults in creating ZOOM were complementary. ZOOM’s adult leadership acknowledged children’s capabilities and ideas by encouraging viewer participation and deliberately involving the young cast members in some degree of decision-making. Young viewers’ enthusiastic participation in the ZOOM community attested to their own sense that they were important partners in the enterprise.
Toward the goal of an entertaining and thoughtful final product, ZOOM’s adult staff served as gatekeepers, determining which of the ideas submitted by children would appear on each episode (or be discussed for inclusion) and deciding in general terms how to present the material. Staff rewrote some letters for clarity and edited most for brevity before ZOOMers read them on the air. For example, one girl from Texas sent ZOOM a play she had written that featured what she called a “hippie” character; ZOOM staff substituted a “panhandler” and converted her slangy line, “Ain’t no place to go,” into standard English.32 Where producers could not find examples of the kind of material they wanted, they sought out other ways to get it. For example, in the first season, the producers felt that most short films created by children were not of high enough visual and sound quality to use on air, so they turned to a Boston-area art studio where children were taking courses in film animation. (By season six, “Cinema ZOOM” was a regular feature, a sign that more American children now had access to film equipment with which they could create short films.) Even as thousands of eager children wrote to ZOOM listing their talents and asking to be ZOOMguests, the producers appear to have found most ZOOMguests through their own contacts. ZOOM staff also deliberately selected material to showcase the diversity and range of their audience, whether by choosing letters representative of different regions or by filming ZOOMguest documentaries across the country. Almost every episode ended with an upbeat song and dance number; these too were chosen, choreographed, and filmed by adults.
ZOOM staff deliberately removed and elided these signs of adult influence from the finished episodes. ZOOMguest documentaries, for example, appeared to be narrated by the children whose voice-overs they featured, but these voice-overs were spliced from children’s responses to taped interviews led by adult interviewers; the adult voices were then edited out. Similarly, ZOOMraps appeared to be self-directed conversations among children. In point of fact, adults asked cast members questions off-camera, and in the subsequent editing process these adult voices were removed and the conversations were condensed. Occasionally, viewers were invited to see the production crew in action “behind the scenes,” for example as ZOOMers were learning and rehearsing lyrics to songs that they would later perform. In the final episode of season six, as the series came to a close, ZOOM producers interspersed scenes of the crew with more traditional scenes of ZOOMers performing the weekly song-and-dance sequence. As the credits rolled, the final scene offered a broader view of the studio in which the cast and crew were visible only in silhouette, beyond the cranes of another camera operator and a boom operator. As this “zooming out” made clear, many adults were in fact just out of camera range. But over the course of its run, most young fans of ZOOM likely didn’t know or care about the show’s degree of adult mediation; they found it satisfyingly child-focused, entertaining, and well-paced.
To deal with the deluge of mail the series received, ZOOM staff and adult volunteers sorted incoming letters into categories before the production staff considered them: plays, stories, poems, requests to appear on ZOOM, games, ZOOMdos, jokes and riddles, and other ideas. In one five-day period in January 1975, volunteers processed over 11,000 letters.33 About one third of these letters included SASEs, many with requests for photos of cast members or for ZOOMcards explaining more complex ZOOMdos, such as making puppets or constructing a raft out of sticks and branches. Many children sent in story and game ideas or made suggestions for ZOOMraps based on their own problems or concerns. One child from Arkansas, for example, asked that ZOOMers do a rap about “how would you feel if you had a gerbil, and your dad didn’t like him. I have to move away in July and I don’t want to leave him.”34 Some viewers sent in contributions such as ZOOM-themed art, and general suggestions or requests for personal advice. A third of the 1975 sample were simply affirmations, on the order of “I like ZOOM.”
These letter-writers represented a wider age cohort than the seven-to-twelve-year-olds who were ZOOM’s target audience. Some children were so young that they dictated their letters to their parents. Some teenagers, especially those who had grown up with ZOOM, also continued to watch the show and to write in, though a few of them wrote specifically to ask whether they might now be too old to keep watching. One seventeen-year-old high school junior from Iowa enthused that “I really enjoy ZOOM! A lot of my friends watch ZOOM also!”35
A number of the show’s most fervent fans wrote repeatedly to ZOOM. In the late 1970s, a thirteen-year-old girl from Nebraska who had been watching the show for five years estimated that “This is about the 10 letter [sic] I’ve written to you and I must say I am impressed. Every time I write you always send an answer and it usually comes in about a week.”36 Other young fans sent letters decorated with handmade stamps in lieu of actual postage; WGBH regularly paid the postage due.37 For viewers who sent in SASEs, ZOOMcards invited them to write again, thereby reinforcing their connection to the series.
Part of what inspired so many children to write to ZOOM was the possibility that their ideas or artistic contributions might appear on air, introduced by ZOOMers and publicly credited to them by name and hometown. This recognition was encouraging; one ten-year-old girl from upstate New York whose stunt appeared on ZOOM was then inspired to begin writing a play.38 Children were so eager to participate in ZOOM culture and to be celebrated as creators of ZOOM content that some tried to put pressure on ZOOM to use their material: “I have sent in a lot of things to do. But I have never seen them on your show. I have waited and waited and waited for a long long time,” wrote one Californian.39 Another complained bitterly, “I wroght [sic] before and you [expletive] didn’t have a rap about it.”40 A third noted that despite his having written over one hundred letters over the course of four years (some directly to ZOOM, and others to politicians on ZOOM’s behalf), none of his letters to ZOOM had ever appeared on the air. Even so, he reflected, he had benefitted from the show: “I feel that all forty-two Zoomers and I have become personal friends … ZOOM has made my life so different, by learning about new people, places, and things and participating in them.”41
From ZOOM’s premiere onward, children from around the nation also pleaded to join the cast. The pilot episode, broadcast on WGBH several times in early September 1971 to test ZOOM’s appeal, sparked the first of many such requests. As one early viewer wrote, “I am twelve years old. I wondered if by chance you would like or need another person for your cast.”42 Because ZOOM represented the cast members as ordinary Americans doing activities that any child could do, being on ZOOM seemed relatively attainable. One boy from the New York City suburbs wrote in 1977 that he was motivated to ask about becoming a cast member once he “realized that the kids on ZOOM weren’t any kind of fancy child actors but just regular kids.”43 Many fans didn’t realize that ZOOMers all lived in the greater Boston area, and that most viewers were thus ineligible to be cast members. A ZOOM fact sheet created to address many of the most common letter-writers’ queries explained, “Because ZOOM doesn’t want to disrupt a ZOOMer’s private life any more than is absolutely necessary, it is not possible to make special arrangements to live with a friend, commute to Boston or move to Boston just to be on ZOOM.”44 To address its viewers’ curiosity about life as a ZOOMer, the first season included a rap about “What’s it like to be on TV.”
ZOOMers knew that their experiences of appearing on television were unusual and set them apart. But the message they received from staff was, as season one ZOOMer Ann recalled, “that we were chosen because we were ordinary—they went to great lengths to make sure that we didn’t get our egos all pumped up—but there’s no way on earth you actually believe that.”45 ZOOM emphasized ordinariness in the service of its larger claim: that all children were capable of cultural creation. As Sarson told the press in 1972, “Never underestimate the potential of that kid down the block.”46
To preserve the notion that the cast members were regular kids, plucked from obscurity, who returned to it once their time on television (a season or two at most) was at an end, ZOOMers were known to viewers only by their first names. They didn’t travel outside of the Boston region on ZOOM business and were specifically prohibited from parlaying their fame on ZOOM into appearances in advertisements or other television shows for several years afterward. As a means of protecting the “ordinary”-ness of its casts, the ZOOM staff did what they could to insulate ZOOMers from viewer attention. ZOOMers were not allowed to read their own fan mail, let alone respond to it. In one exception to this rule, when Sarson wanted second season ZOOMer Bernadette to explain on camera how she did her signature arm wave, he showed her some of the fan mail asking about this special skill.47
The fact that ZOOMers were not professional entertainers made them appear more approachable. When cast members were shown unable to keep a straight face while performing a play about a princess locked in a tower, or demonstrating recipes such as a sloppy ice cream snowman, they appeared to be accessible, ordinary, and unpolished. These qualities were central to their charm, allowing viewers to identify with (rather than merely to idolize) them. Viewers knew little about the cast members’ lives off-camera, but letters to the show suggest that children experienced ZOOMers, in the words of one eight-year-old girl, as “just like my best friend!” nonetheless.48 A sense of intimacy encouraged many viewers to see themselves as part of a collective ZOOM community, and to pick up their pens and pencils and respond.
The diversity of ZOOMers also inspired viewer participation. Children who watched the show regularly often felt connected to several seasons’ worth of ZOOMers at once, because many local PBS affiliates began to broadcast reruns from multiple seasons on weekday afternoons, in addition to each week’s new episode. This repetition allowed viewers to compare cast members from various seasons and to choose favorites. While ZOOM gave equal attention to all its cast members, individual viewers identified more with some ZOOMers than with others, and many children wrote specifically to particular ZOOMers or asked for specific cast members’ ZOOMcards. A number of young viewers wrote about having crushes on specific ZOOMers. At a time when children of diverse racial backgrounds were significantly underrepresented in American popular culture, many children of color wrote expressly to ZOOMers of their own race, sometimes adding their own photographs to their letters.
In one notable instance, ZOOM asked children to send in letters to defend the series from cancellation. In the 1970s, funding for educational television remained politically unstable. Over the course of its run, ZOOM received funding from CPB, the Ford Foundation, and (in its sixth and final season) the U.S. Office of Education, as well as General Foods Corporation and McDonald’s Corporation, but ZOOM’s executive producers had to lobby to ensure the show’s survival. In February 1973, producers discovered that CPB was not planning to renew ZOOM’s grant. Staff immediately organized what they called a ZOOMalarm for the following week’s episode, adding footage of ZOOMer Maura looking directly at the camera and telling the audience at home: “ZOOM may be taken off the air. The people who decide are in Washington. If you love *ZOOM and want ZOOM to stay on, send us your picture. We will send it to Washington to show you care.” Within a month, ZOOM had received almost 200,000 letters of support.49
The ZOOMalarm was a savvy use of media campaigning. In the style of ACT and similar liberal lobbying groups, ZOOM was training children to become activists who could advocate for their own interests. “I want to save ZOOM!!!” wrote one girl. “I like ZOOM. Please keep it on the air,” wrote a six-year-old boy.50 The media described the ZOOMalarm as a sign of the democratic process; as Newsweek noted in 1973, “Could anything be more participatory than a children’s program relying on its audience for ideas, on children for its performers, and on public opinion for its very survival?”51 The ensuing press coverage, and the letters generated by children, prompted CPB to reconsider its decision, and ZOOM continued for an additional four seasons.
This activist lobbying was only provisionally effective. In 1975-76, ZOOM production was temporarily halted due to funding difficulties, and new episodes were replaced with ZOOM reruns. The series finally came to a close in 1978 after a short sixth season. Some fans, when they heard that ZOOM was ending, wrote in with advice. “Why don’t you have another ZOOM ALARM?” asked one; “Why didn’t you tell viewers to write to company [sic] that would give ZOOM a grant?” suggested another.52 The ZOOMalarm remained a touchstone, having taught many young viewers about the possibilities of their own collective power.
Even though the majority of children who watched ZOOM never wrote in, only a small number of viewers saw their own ideas on television, and even fewer served as ZOOMers, ZOOM had a broad reach in American children’s culture. Viewers frequently parlayed elements of ZOOM episodes into their own neighborhood play. One parent noted that after an episode in which the cast members played a game of jacks, her daughter insisted on getting jacks; everywhere they looked the stores were sold out of the game because, the mother contended, other ZOOM fans had already bought them.53 In letters to ZOOM, children frequently explained that they tried to speak Ubbi-Dubbi; puzzled over why Fannee Doollee (the subject of a number of early puzzles) liked certain things and hated others; and described making craft projects based on ZOOMdos. One set of friends living in the Boston suburbs “would reenact the shows,” as a viewer later recalled, “and we each got to be our favorite character. Of the girls, we all fought over being Ann.”54 Other children were inspired to try new games or art projects. As one Massachusetts girl explained, “When I watch your show I get a lot of ideas.”55 Whether as fans of the show or as creative advisors, viewers immersed themselves in an inclusive, interactive space of cultural creation.