ZOOM (1972-1978): Children’s Community and Public Television in the 1970s

Innovations in Children’s Public Television Programming

Before developing the concept for ZOOM, television producer Christopher Sarson worked at WGBH in educational children’s programming. As the father of two young children, he noticed that there were few good television options for children who had outgrown the public television hit series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.7 He was also intrigued by the potential of the new children’s magazine KIDS (1970-75), founded in the Boston suburb of Cambridge. KIDS’ stories and articles were written and edited by children ages fifteen and younger, though its founding editors were adults.8 Sarson envisioned something similar for television: a show with child hosts and viewer-created content.

Summer Do, a weekly children’s television program that Sarson produced for WGBH in the summer of 1970, was a forerunner of ZOOM in important respects. Several episodes featured groups of Boston children casually hanging out, bicycling around their neighborhoods, and discussing what they found interesting about their local communities. One episode of Summer Do encouraged viewers to send in their suggestions for possible future episodes and highlighted short films created by area children. After Summer Do, Sarson became the original series producer of the new WGBH series Masterpiece Theatre (1971-). He also created pilot episodes for two other children’s television programs at Boston station WBZ-TV (part of Group W, the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company). The first pilot, starring local television star Rex Trailer as an adult host, was developed into the children’s science show Earth Lab beginning in 1971, without Sarson’s involvement.9 After WBZ rejected Sarson’s second pilot, Zoom In, Zoom Out, which featured a cast of children, he successfully pitched the idea to WGBH as the basis for ZOOM.10

The degree to which ZOOM emphasized children’s roles as cultural producers was novel in children’s television. However, Sarson began developing the series and became its first executive producer at a time when other new innovative public television programs were also challenging traditional children’s media paradigms.

Profit-making series had long dominated American children’s entertainment. By the early 1930s, commercial American radio broadcasters were working to strengthen their young fans’ allegiances by encouraging them to write in for special “club” offers, some of which required proofs of purchase from corporate sponsors.11 Then, in the postwar years, advertisers followed the rapidly expanding television market. Advertisements for breakfast cereals and toys appeared during (and sometimes embedded within) television programs marketed to children, such as NBC’s Howdy Doody Show (1947-1960) and The Mickey Mouse Club (1955-1959). The Mickey Mouse Club exemplified this mix of commerce and culture; while it encouraged children to join the “club,” it included more advertisements than any other show then on television, some of which were filmed with its young cast members known as Mouseketeers, and it featured a range of Disney-themed promotional content.12

The rise of educational and public television stations, beginning with Houston’s KUHT in 1953, created space for new children’s series with non-commercial goals. The Friendly Giant, a gentle, slow-paced show for young children featuring the Friendly Giant and his two puppet friends, was developed in Madison, Wisconsin at the new educational television station WHA-TV in 1954, before moving to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) in 1958. At The Children's Corner (1954-61), conceived at Pittsburgh public television station WQED, producer Fred Rogers first developed many of the puppet characters who would later appear in fantasy sequences of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. The WQED program guide encouraged young viewers of The Children's Corner to join the “Tame Tiger Torganization” (in honor of tiger puppet Daniel), and to send in letters, poems, and riddles for possible use on air or in the program guide. Rogers launched Misterogers at the CBC in 1962, then brought the series back to Pittsburgh in 1966. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood was syndicated nationally on public television stations starting in 1968.

In 1965, in an era of increasing debate about the value of commercial television, President Lyndon B. Johnson encouraged the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television to explore how best to expand and strengthen the educational, non-commercial sector. The Carnegie Commission’s influential 1967 report Public Television: A Program for Action recommended the establishment of a congressionally-chartered non-profit organization as well as secure public funding.13 In the report’s wake, the Johnson administration lobbied Congress to pass the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to distribute funding to public television stations around the country, and to support the production and distribution of programs. CPB founded PBS, which debuted in 1970 and succeeded the National Educational Television (NET) network (1952-1972).14

During this period, Fred Rogers became an important advocate for educational children’s programming. In 1969, he appeared at a Senate hearing on support for CPB, which was created without secure, long-term funding. Rogers made the case for advancing children’s emotional intelligence through television so eloquently that Sen. John Pastore, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communication who was working on annual funding for public broadcasting, responded by saying, “Looks like you just earned the twenty million dollars.”

The idea that children’s educational television could serve worthy goals inspired other new projects. In 1966, at the height of President Johnson’s War on Poverty, television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie Foundation vice-president Lloyd Morrisett began to plan an educational television show for preschool-aged children. Arguing that early education programming on television could serve far more young children than existing preschools and the new federal Head Start program, they developed a series eventually called Sesame Street, designed to entertain young children while introducing them to the alphabet, basic numbers and shapes, and problem-solving. Reflecting the series’ effort to support civil rights activism through popular culture, Sesame Street included Black adult central characters Gordon and Susan as role models, along with a multiracial cast and puppets (or Muppets) of various hues. Following extensive program design and testing, Sesame Street debuted in November 1969. It was an immediate success, not only among the disadvantaged young children whom the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), the organization founded to develop Sesame Street, felt could particularly benefit from early education but also among the middle-class American preschoolers who quickly became its largest audience. Its lively skits and songs, and its sympathetic cast of recurring characters, made the show beloved among young Americans and their parents. By 1973, nine million American children watched Sesame Street every week, and CTW became a powerful force in children’s educational television.15

In a reflection of CTW’s rising stature, the U.S. Office of Education asked the organization to develop a new television show focused on reading and literacy that could be shown in elementary schools. In response, CTW created The Electric Company (1971-77), which focused on second- to fourth-graders and was designed to be integrated into school lesson plans. Like Sesame Street, The Electric Company had a racially diverse adult cast, and it aimed to reach children as savvy (if age-specific) participants in popular culture. The Electric Company’s first episode used the word “groovy” as an example of the sounds made by the letter “g.” The theme song’s lyrics (“We’re going to turn it on, we’re going to turn on the power”) could be interpreted as references not only to electricity but also to an activist counterculture, and the show’s masthead featured psychedelic graphics. The Electric Company reached a wide audience: perhaps two or three million children at elementary schools and as many watching the series at home after school. About a third of all American elementary schools incorporated the show into lesson plans in some way, whether students read The Electric Company Magazine (1972-87) or watched the program itself at school.16

As interest grew in the possibilities of educational television, a number of public television stations across the country developed new series for elementary school-aged children. What’s New (1961-1973), distributed by NET, included segments filmed at public broadcasting stations across the country on topics ranging from the experience of a New York Yankees bat boy to food traditions around the world. On Hodge Podge Lodge (1970-78), produced by the Maryland Center for Public Broadcasting and syndicated on other eastern public television stations, host Jean Worthley (Miss Jean) taught visiting children about the natural world. Studio See (1976-79), produced at South Carolina ETV, documented children with unusual talents and interesting hobbies and also trained children as part of its technical crew. Carrascolendas (1970-76), produced at KLRN in Austin, Texas, was one of the nation’s first bilingual children’s television programs, featuring child and adult actors speaking both English and Spanish.17 Vegetable Soup (1975-78), produced by the New York State Education Department and distributed both by NBC and PBS in a rare crossover between commercial and educational television, set out to dismantle racial and cultural stereotypes and to celebrate diversity.18

ZOOM was less explicitly pedagogical than many other educational children’s television series of the period, and it had a greater focus on children’s voices. But these programs shared common goals: to make children’s television more stimulating; to highlight diversity; and to communicate interesting and creative ideas. ZOOM’s magazine format and casual style were also influenced by several other television shows of the period. One 1971 WGBH promotion for ZOOM compared it to the sketch comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In (NBC, 1968-73), the satirical political variety show Great American Dream Machine (produced by New York City’s WNET and broadcast on PBS, 1971-72), and a humorous documentary series for children about how things are made, Hot Dog (NBC, 1970-71), as well as the more obvious Sesame Street. All of these shows had an off-the-cuff sensibility that ZOOM would emulate.19

Sarson’s interest in children’s programming also undoubtedly was influenced by his wife’s media activism. Evelyn Sarson was one of the founders of Action for Children’s Television (ACT), a lobbying group based in the Boston suburb of Newton. ACT questioned why network children’s programming had so much violence and so many advertisements, and was of such low quality.20

Evelyn Sarson served as the organization’s first president from 1968 to 1972, while her colleague Peggy Charren was ACT’s first chairman and became its president in 1972. Members of the group, like many other media activists of the period, set about collecting useful data on advertisements and product placement to make their case. For example, they calculated that the Boston version of the popular half-hour children’s series Romper Room (1953-1994) included five minutes of advertisements, six minutes of product placement (via children playing with advertisers’ products), and six more minutes of children playing with toys that were not specifically advertised that day. As ACT concluded, seventeen of the thirty minutes of Romper Room were devoted to selling products to children.21

The late 1960s and 1970s witnessed rising consumer activism in the television industry, as pressure grew on corporate broadcasters to address the commercialization and violence that children saw on television. Although early media accounts sometimes condescendingly dismissed the members of ACT as “militant housewives,” the middle-class mothers who founded ACT, many of whom had professional jobs prior to having children, became a force in pressing the government and the major television networks to improve standards in children’s programming on the major networks and to limit advertisements and the mention of brand names on children’s series.22 While ACT did not entirely succeed in its goals, Evelyn Sarson and her colleagues at ACT, with the support of such prominent figures in children’s television as Joan Ganz Cooney, Fred Rogers, and puppeteer Jim Henson (inventor of the Muppets who appeared on Sesame Street), gained national attention and were influential in pressuring major commercial television networks to begin to regulate child-focused programming.

ZOOM did not entirely stand apart from commercial culture. Two ZOOM-themed books (The ZOOM Catalog in 1972, and Do a Zoom Do in 1975) and two record albums (Playgrounds in 1973, featuring former ZOOMers, and Come on and ZOOM, an official ZOOM album, in 1974) were released over the course of its run, and the series received financial support from some of the same corporations that advertised directly to youth on commercial television: McDonalds and General Foods.

Yet to an important degree, ZOOM kept commercialism at a deliberate remove. Tapping into values from the counterculture of the late 1960s and early 1970s—community, simplicity, authenticity, anti-materialism, environmental awareness, and do-it-yourself creative fun—ZOOM offered an alternative to commercial network programming. While the series’ credits noted the support of corporate sponsors, as a public television program ZOOM did not endorse or promote specific products; when ZOOMers made viewer-suggested recipes, or ZOOM goodys, the ingredients were always displayed in plain, unbranded packaging. Throughout the series, ZOOMers also made fun of the genre of television advertisements by performing imaginary ads in Ubbi-Dubbi (ZOOM’s “secret” language, which involved adding an “ub” sound before vowels) for products that appeared preposterous or did not work as intended. The cast of children usually dressed casually in sweatshirts or striped rugby shirts worn with jeans, and for the first few seasons ZOOMers often went barefoot, further signaling their informality. Environmental awareness was another consistent theme. In the context of the rising environmental movement of the 1970s, ZOOMer Norman explained how to recycle used cans, and a number of ZOOMdos emphasized reusing materials to make interesting toys rather than acquiring new playthings. ZOOMers and ZOOMguests showed viewers how to join elastic bands to create “Chinese jump ropes,” made “string instruments” out of plastic milk jugs, and created kites out of grocery bags.

Letter to ZOOM about pollution.
Letter to ZOOM about pollution.</
Poem about strip mining and pollution from a viewer in Alabama.
Poem about strip mining and pollution from a viewer in Alabama.</

ZOOM emerged at a time of transition marked by rising criticism of commercial children’s television fare, mounting interest in educational children’s programming, and the growth of public television itself. In this climate, ZOOM was among a number of pioneering series making waves in American children’s culture.

Next: Children as Cultural Producers