Friday, April 22, 2005

Children's Shows

Visting my brother and sister in law this week, I was exposed to many children's DVDs some of which were collections of episodes from children's shows (The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss being one). I find it interesting how children's shows have changed over the years.

Growing up, most of the children's shows on the air were either cartoons or, at least, featured cartoons. This wasn't always the case, from what I know of television history. Before I was born the big children's show was Howdy Doody. Howdy Doody debuted on NBC in December 1947. It aired at 5:30 PM EST five days a week. The show was fairly suceessful, with good ratings and a good number of merchandising tie ins. Howdy Doody also achieved a few milestones. It was the first show to reach 1000 broadcasts. It was also the first show regularly shown in colour. The show also introduced the clay animated character known as Gumby to the world (who would outlast Howdy himself). Howdy Doody also provided Bob Keeshan (Captain Kangaroo to most of us) with one of his first jobs (he was the first Clarabell the Clown). The show's ratings declined over the years, especially when The Mickey Mouse Club debuted on ABC in the same time slot. Eventually the show would be moved to Saturday afternoons. In 1960, Howdy Doody would leave the air. Declining ratings had left it without a sponsor. I have seen clips of Howdy Doody and I never have understood it appeal. I asked my sister about it (she is 17 years older than I am), but she never watched the show. I guess television was simpler in those days, not to mention there were fewer children's shows.

In 1955, Howdy Doody got competition. That year The Mickey Mouse Club debuted. The show's format was simple. Each episode featured one or two musical numbers, a classic Disney cartoon, and serialised shorts of continuing series (The Hardy Boys was one). The Mickey Mouse Club was fairly successful for a time. It turned Annette Funicello into a star and produced a good amount of merchandise. Unfortunately, as the Fifties progressed, ratings for late afternoon children's shows were in decline. The Mickey Mouse Club went off the air after three years. I wasn't alive when the show first aired, although as an adult I can understand the show's appeal, having seen reruns of it on the Disney Channel. The various series aired on the show were entertaining and well done. And, of course, it was a chance to see some classic Disney animation. The show was revived in 1977, but only lasted two years. There have been a number of revivals on the Disney Channel since that time.

On the same day in 1955 that The Mickey Mouse Club debuted, so did another show. Captain Kangaroo may well be the most successful children's show of all time short of Sesame Street. Captain Kangaroo was the creation of Bob Keeshan, who had played Clarabell the Clown for five years on Howdy Doody. Keeshan wanted to create a show for children that would not be purely exploitative, but would seek to educate them as well. He created the character of the Captain as an elderly gentleman, feeling that children would relate to him as a grandfatherly figure. The show also featured a number of characters in addition to Captain Kangaroo. Mr. Greenjeans (Hugh Brannum) was the Captain's friend and would bring around various animals and talk about them. Like many kid's shows, Captain Kangaroo featured a number of puppets. Mr. Moose was a practical joker who always sought to bombard people with ping pong balls. Bunny Rabbit was always seeking to con the Captain out of a few carrots. Captain Kangaroo ran for thirty years on CBS, cancelled because the network wanted to expand its morning news. It ran another six years on PBS, for a total of 36 years on the air. Such an institution was Captain Kangaroo that I remember when CBS cancelled it, there was a good deal of uproar.

I grew up watching Captain Kangaroo and I honestly believe it was the greatest children's show of all time. It was very educational. Watching Captain Kangaroo I learned about various animals (everything from goats to dolphins), American history, proper etiquette, and many other things. At the same time, however, it was a fun show. Bob Keeshan created a wonderful world where the characters were believable and interacted with each other just as real people did. Indeed, the Captain himself was part of the show's appeal. He never talked down to the viewer, addressing us as equals.

In 1967 a similar show debuted on WQED in Pittsburgh, Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. It went nationwide in 1968 on NET (National Educational Television, which would become PBS). Like Captain Kangaroo, the show blended education with fun. It featured various characters from the neighborhood, including delivery man Mr. McFeely and baker Chef Brockett. It also featured various puppet characters, such as Lady Elaine Fairchild, King Friday XIII, and Daniel Striped Tiger. The show educated its audience on a number of different topics, from getting shots to going to bed. Mr. Roger's Neighborhood was very successful. Until it was surpassed by Sesame Street, it was the longest running series on PBS. Mid-Missouri didn't have a PBS station for years, so I never got to see the show as a child. But watching it with my great nieces, I do have to say that I was impressed.

Of course, PBS is also the home of Sesame Street, which is still on the air after debuting in 1968. It is seen in over 120 countries around the globe. For those few of you who have never seen Sesame Street, the show educates children on letter, numbers,language, and social skills. It utilises both human characters and Muppets. In fact, the Muppets from the show are probably its most famous characters, from Oscar the Grouch to Cookie Monster to Bert and Ernie. As a child I remember Kermit the Frog even appeared on the show. Probably the show's most famous human character was Mr. Hooper (Will Lee), who ran the street's store. When Lee died, the show actually addressed the issue of death by having Mr. Hooper pass on as well.

While we did not have a PBS affiliate when I was growing up, I was able to watch Sesame Steet as a child. KRCG aired it right after Captain Kangaroo at 9:00 AM CST. I enjoyed the show a good deal and I have to wonder if much of my skill with words doesn't stem from learning about the alphabet and words on the show. Given that I am bad at math, it doesn't seem like it taught me much about numbers...

As a young adult I didn't pay too much to children's shows, although I became aware of them again with the birth of my oldest great niece. At two years of age she became hooked on Barney. The series was created in 1987 by teacher Sheryl Leach, who had the idea of a show for the preschool set. The series is centred on Barney, a stuffed, toy dinosaur who comes to life in a day care centre. Episodes of the seires were initially released on home video in 1988, but by 1992 the series was airing on PBS. It became a veritable craze among many preschool children (incuding my oldest great niece). The show now airs in over 100 countries.

I have to say that I have never cared for Barney. The show is supposed to be educational, covering such subjects as respect for others, self esteem, good manners, and so on. Unfortunately, I think it might do this very poorly, as I think an adult simply explaining such things to a child could do it better and in shorter time. Too, it seems to me that the show does not keep children's attention. My youngest great niece never cared for Barney. When it came on, she would usually go play or insist on watching something else. My nephew is even worse. He will demand I put a DVD on! I can only guess the show's initial success was due to the fact that there just weren't any other shows on the air for younger children at the time it debuted.

Now it seems as if there are hundreds of them, too many for me to list here. One children's show I remember from when my youngest great niece was little is Bananas in Pyjamas. The show debuted in Australia on ABC in 1992. It centres on two man-sized bananas, simply called B1 and B2. The two lived on Cuddles Lane, along side their friends Rat-in-a-Hat (my favourite character) and the Teddy Bears ( Amy, Morgan and Lulu), not to mention various assorted chracters. The typical episode might centre on one of Rat-in-a-Hat's tricks, which B1 and B2 also managed to foil. I don't remember too much about it, except it was a fun show. It had a bouncy theme song and jokes that only adults would probably get. I have to wonder if the show wasn't somewhat influenced by The Prisoner, the bananas being only know by letter and number designations... At the very least, the show was pretty surreal. I know it aired here in the States in the mid-Nineties and it is still on the air in Australia, but I've no idea if it is still airing here.

Surreal is also the word for TeleTubbies. The show originated on BBC2 in the United Kingdom in 1997 before making its way to PBS here in America in 1998. It is made with one to four year olds in mind and is meant to help with the child's imagination and thought. It centres on the TeleTubbies (Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa, and Po), who live in the magical place of Teletubbyland. The show seems entertaining enough, if a bit strange. It seems to me it would have been really popular in the Sixties with the Haight-Ashbury crowd...

The one recent kid's show that has always impressed me is The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss. The series as produced by Jim Henson Productions and combined CGI with Muppets. The show featured various characters from Dr. Seuss's books, centring on the Cat in the Hat. Each episode would include a central plot involving the Cat or Sam I Am or another character, as well as one or two stories. As an adult I find the show entertaining (my sister in law claimed I was watching it a bit too intently the other day...) and my nephew absoluately loves it. Unfortunately, The Wubbulous World of Dr. Seuss only ran one season, from 1997 to 1998. Fortunately, the whole series is available on DVD.

I really don't know where children's shows are going to go from here. I suspect that there will continue to be an emphasis on education, which it is as it should be. Depsite its failure, I think The Wubbuluous World of Seuss may well point to the future, in which children's shows may well combine computer animation and puppets. At any rate, I hope the next batch of children's shows are better than Barney..

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