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

The Politics of ZOOM

In the 1960s and 1970s, new cultural projects such as ZOOM helped to consolidate liberal ideals for a younger generation, affirming the era’s progressive activism as an intergenerational project. The series’ politics were more often implicit than explicit; generally, ZOOM advanced progressive ideals by showcasing the experiences of a diverse group of children and celebrating young people with unusual talents or histories. Occasionally, the series spoke more directly about racial, gender, and ableist hierarchies. Overall, ZOOM celebrated children’s autonomy and their capacity to do interesting and difficult things.

ZOOM modeled racial equality through scenes of inclusiveness and power-sharing among children of different races. Its opening montage included a close-up handshake between a white and a Black child, and photographs of diverse children as well as images of the multiracial cast. Its ZOOMguests, whose stories were told through short documentary films, offered glimpses of the lives of a broad range of children: Laverne Concha, an Indigenous Puebloan girl living at the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico; Marvalene Johnson, a Black girl volunteering at the Humane Society in Madison, Wisconsin; Julio Farias, a Latino circus performer in Florida; Steven Kwong, an immigrant boy from Hong Kong teaching children at a Kung Fu Academy in Boston. ZOOM allowed viewers both to identify with children who appeared to share similarities with them and to consider themselves part of a children’s community built across lines of difference. In season four, visiting dancers came to the set to teach ZOOMers a variety of styles: Israeli folk dancing, an Irish reel, African dance, square dancing. Reflecting the influence of Black Afrocentric style in the 1970s, ZOOM’s do-it-yourself activities included instructions on how to make one’s own dashiki shirt and how to cornrow hair.

This framework for racial and ethnic representation stood in contradistinction to the world outside the studio. ZOOM was produced at a time of significant racial conflict in Boston. While the 1954 Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education had promised an end to legal school segregation, long-term patterns of racial discrimination in housing had effectively preserved the racial homogeneity of many school districts. In Boston, the organized busing of white and Black students to schools in other neighborhoods began in 1974, during ZOOM’s third season, after a federal judge found that the city had discriminated against Black students by rigging districts to establish de facto segregation. During the first two years in which busing was implemented, one third of white students left the Boston public schools amid great rancor and episodes of violence, often directed at Black students.56 In one unusual ZOOMrap from season four, the cast gathered to discuss this contentious issue. Tishy, a white girl from South Boston, where busing conflicts were particularly acute, suggested that “the whites should stay with the whites, the Blacks should stay with the Blacks, the Puerto Ricans should stay with the Puerto Ricans.” The others responded with comments such as “Nooo … that would be boring.” For a child viewer unacquainted with Boston politics, the brief discussion was likely perplexing, as the issue of busing was never explained. The rap ended in typical ZOOM fashion, with the ZOOMers agreeing that they should all live together in peace.

Reflecting the nation’s growing diversity, from season two onward ZOOM casts included Asian-American and Latino/a children as well as Black children. ZOOMguests included children from new immigrant families, as well as those who spoke other languages than English. For example, Mei Ling Lee, a Chinese-American girl whose family had emigrated from Hong Kong in 1969, served as a capable translator and waiter at her parents’ Chinese restaurant. Shelley Arora, a boy recently arrived from India, was now learning traditional sitar music from his mother in Boston. José Burgo, a recent immigrant to Boston from Cape Verde, described his transition to a new country. These episodes made it clear that the immigrant experience was not always easy. As Tony Carpino, an Italian-American immigrant in Boston living with his siblings, reflected, “I really missed my friends and family in Italy. When we came over we didn’t speak one word of English.… It just got easier as time went on.” Similarly, Steven So of San Francisco, who had immigrated from Hong Kong, recalled, “When we first came here, we didn’t know nothing, we didn’t know any friends, and my mom wanted us to go back, we felt lonely and just like stranger. Then we met this friend and now we’ve got a lot of friends here.” On the ZOOM set, the series represented several cast members’ bilingualism as an asset. In one episode, Luiz read a story he had written in Spanish, “The Magic Blue Bat,” while subtitles appeared on the screen in English. In another episode, Carmen translated a letter from a Spanish-speaking Puerto Rican viewer.

ZOOM similarly promoted feminist perspectives most often by modeling gender equity. On ZOOM, both boys and girls danced, led activities, played jacks, made ZOOMgoodys, and dressed in jeans and striped tops. Only occasionally did ZOOM engage overtly with gender politics in the wake of second-wave feminism.

ZOOM included the perspectives of numerous children who appeared in some way to be breaking with traditional gender conventions. As Colorado ZOOMguest Linda Mills explained, “I guess maybe you could call me a cowgirl. A cowgirl is a girl that could ride up on the high mountains and bring cattle down with the rest of the men and ride horses.” Lisa LaBit of New Orleans, Louisiana wished that other girls boxed so that she could have more opponents in the ring. May Ann Gilman of Vermont, who ran a coal-fired steam engine at a museum, said, “When I grow up I want to be an engineer and I’m sort of a women’s libber and I’m trying to make first lady engineer in New England.” Some boys who appeared as ZOOMguests also pushed against traditional gender boundaries, whether by pursuing interests that some of their peers might see as unmasculine or by expressing vulnerability. David Kahan made challah bread while explaining why kneading the dough well was necessary to making a good loaf. Sean Savoye, a ballet dancer in New York City, explained that he faced prejudice as a male dancer: “The real reason I don’t just tell people that I dance is because they laugh. Most boys would laugh because they think of it as a sissy thing.” When ZOOMer Mike had his tonsils out, he openly discussed his anxiety with the ZOOM audience: “When doctors actually told me that I had to have my tonsils out, well I started crying, believe it or not.” In a heartrending episode in season four, the ZOOMers had a long and emotional rap about studio director D. Keith Carlson, who had died only days earlier in a car accident on his way home from WGBH.

Many American children of the 1970s experienced the impact of the new feminism in sports; the passage of Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972, in the manner of race-based civil rights legislation before it, prohibited sex discrimination in federally funded higher educational institutions and held schools accountable for providing girls fair access to academic opportunities and competitive sports. In season three, one episode included as ZOOMguests the Marshfield Goldiggers of Marshfield, Massachusetts, a girl’s hockey team shown playing against a local boys’ team. As one of the girls explained, “Some people don’t think that girls play rough sports, but we are all on a girls’ hockey team in Marshfield, Massachusetts. People used to laugh at the idea of girls playing hockey, but a lot of us wanted to play so a couple of years ago, one of our fathers started up a team.” While the girls expressed confidence in their abilities, the boys offered a range of opinions about whether girls belonged on the ice. One boy stated, “I think hockey is a boys’ game. I don’t think girls should play, ‘cause a home for a girl is in the house.” Another contended, “I don’t think it’s unfeminine for the girls to play hockey. They should be allowed to if they want to.” While the Goldiggers lost the game by a significant margin, the episode showed them playing with determination.

Letter to ZOOM from a boy who wants to do synchronized swimming.
Letter to ZOOM from a boy who wants to do synchronized swimming.</
Letter from a girl in Iowa about playing football.
Letter from a girl in Iowa about playing football.</

From the first season onward some ZOOMguests were children with disabilities, whose talents and skills were the focus of their episodes. David Wood was filmed at the Perkins School for the Blind working competently with wood, tools, and a braille ruler to make a toy. One episode in season three included subtitles for children with hearing impairments and featured ZOOMguest Roland Granfors, who attended a summer camp run by the American School for the Deaf and was a competitive basketball player. This episode generated a significant response from children writing in for a ZOOMcard about American Sign Language.57 A number of children with disabilities wrote to ZOOM, praising the program for showcasing the lives of children like themselves.58

In ZOOM’s final season in 1977-78, many children with disabilities were being newly mainstreamed into regular public schools, a practice that became a legal expectation as a result of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975. The U.S. Office of Education provided funding for ZOOM to create eight ZOOMguest segments that touched on the experiences of children with disabilities. Dee Armstrong of California, for example, was a bright and thoughtful twelve-year-old with Larsen Syndrome, a genetic disorder that affected her mobility. She was shown beginning the transition from a school for students with disabilities to a “regular” school. Like other children in this series, Armstong was represented as a talented athlete (here, playing wheelchair basketball), with the confidence to forge her own path. The documentary also gave her a platform from which to speak about disability and prejudice. As she concluded, “I sometimes do wish that people wouldn’t just sit there with their eyes on canes. Why can’t they look at me instead of my cane? I am a person myself. I just need a little extra equipment.”

Letter to ZOOM from a girl who is blind and living with paralysis.
Letter to ZOOM from a girl who is blind and living with paralysis.</
Letter thanking ZOOM for 'sometimes showing children like me who are handicapped,' from a viewer in Washington.
Letter thanking ZOOM for 'sometimes showing children like me who are handicapped,' from a viewer in Washington.</

Children’s participation in the labor force was another consistent theme of ZOOM. The ZOOMers themselves were paid for their twice-weekly labor (they earned $110 per week in 1977), but most experienced life on the set more as play than as work.59 Former season two ZOOMers Bernadette and Nancy both later characterized the WGBH set as akin to an “after-school program”; Timmy, from season three, recalled, “You got to run around and do plays and you know all this fun stuff … I made some really good friends.”60 When they were on set at WGBH but not filming, ZOOMers also had a fair degree of autonomy. “We spent a lot of time sitting in Julia Child’s cooking studio,” season one ZOOMer Ann later recalled.61

In contrast, many ZOOMguests were shown working in family businesses where their labor represented an important asset to the family economy: auctioneering, picking crops, working at the family gas station, or delivering snacks at a mother’s beauty parlor. These documentaries often focused on the importance of hard work, perseverance, and even personal sacrifice for a greater cause. Darien Small, a paperboy who rose early to deliver papers and composed poetry while on his bicycle route, explained that his job had paid for his bicycle as well as gifts for his family: “It’s good to have a job. It makes me feel a little older and independent, and I have some of my own money.” Not all of these children were pursuing their hearts’ desire; a number of them spoke plainly about money and financial constraints. As Lori Morris, a waitress at her family’s Maine seafood restaurant, explained, “We’re a real close family, ‘cause we all have to work together in the restaurant, because things are so high [expensive].”

Young artists and athletes who appeared as ZOOMguests also spoke to the importance of sustained hard work and perseverance. “I’m committed to my instrument so I might as well work hard at it if I want to make a career out of it,” explained violinist Nicholas Danielson in one episode. Marcie Ravech, a gymnast, explained similarly in another episode, “At this point gymnastics is my entire life.... It’s a total commitment.” Although ZOOM was playful, ZOOMguests’ lives were not all fun and games.

While the children who appeared as ZOOMguests were a diverse group, what distinguished them collectively was their willingness to work, to dream, and to create. Part of what was so appealing about the season one episode in which Roy West made his own raft was that he appeared to be so autonomous: wielding an axe to chop wood unsupervised by adults, creating a raft on his own, and then floating away blissfully on a lake alone. Through this episode and many more, ZOOM emphasized children’s talents and capacities, a message that resonated with the series’ young audience.

Other Sources:

  • Pam Benson, ZOOMers Revisited: Where Are They Now? (Boston: WGBH Educational Foundation, 1998).

  • Bernice Chesler, Do a Zoom Do (New York: Little Brown & Co, 1975).

  • David Kamp, Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution that Changed America (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020)

  • Lloyd N. Morrisett, “The Age of Television and the Television Age,” Peabody Journal of Education 48, no. 2 (January 1971): 112-21.

  • Leslie Paris, “Send it to ZOOM!: American Children’s Television and Intergenerational Cultural Creation in the 1970s” in Rachel Conrad and Brown Kennedy, eds., Literary Cultures and Twentieth Century Childhoods (New York: Palgrave, 2020), 237-54.

  • WGBH Educational Foundation, The ZOOM Catalog: Riddles, Jokes, Stories, Songs, Games, Plays, Puzzles, Poems, Crafts, Art, Guest Interviews (New York: Random House, 1972).

  • ZOOM” produced by John Nagy and Newton Wayland, in Come on and ZOOM, A&M Records, 1974.

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