The Electric Company, the iconic 1970s children’s literacy show, is returning to public television in January with an updated format, a cool cast of characters and dash of hip-hop and pop music. And while the new version will look very different, the show’s creators promise it will be true to the original’s goals to improve kids’ literacy.
“We’re trying to make an educational show that can have a groovy impact,” says executive producer Karen Fowler. “The original Electric Company embraced pop culture of its day, great animation and the highest technology of its time. We’re taking those ingredients and poured them into what it means today.”
The new Electric Company is produced by Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization that also produces Sesame Street and Pinky Dinky Do. The show will air on PBS as part of its PBS Kids Go block aimed at elementary-school aged children. The Electric Company is part of PBS Kids’ Raising Readers initiative, a national program to use media to encourage kids to read. The program is funded by a “Ready to Learn” grant from the Department of Education, and is aimed at lower-income kids.
But in an era when Spongebob SquarePants and Hannah Montana rule children’s television, enticing young viewers to sit down to a public broadcasting show – let alone one about reading – may be a tall order. But to compete, the new Electric Company is embracing many current trends.
For example, each episode will have a narrative story, much like other current hit kids shows. The Electric Company, which will run 26 episodes on Friday at 5 p.m., features a story centered around four cool characters, all in their teens or early 20s, who solve problems relating to reading and words. Opposite them are a group of pranksters who act as their nemeses. In between three “acts” of each week’s story, creators are mixing in short pods of music videos, sketch comedy and animation. Much of the show is filmed on location in New York City, using two cameras, that Fowler says gives it the look of an independent film.
Another update is that the new show, mirroring Disney’s wildly popular High School Musical and Hannah Montana, will feature a lot of contemporary music, including hip-hop and pop. Each episode will include an original song and popular artists, such as Sean Kingston, will make guest appearances.
Drawing on the popularity of cartoons like The Simpsons and Spongebob, the new Electric Company will also incorporate animation. And, Fowler says, because kids always appreciate punch lines, there will be slap-stick comedy between the cast.
The original Electric Company, which ran six seasons from 1971-78 and then in repeats until 1985, was almost all sketch comedy. Back then it was aping the popular style of the era’s biggest hits, such as Laugh In to The Carol Burnett Show.
“The environment that kids are growing up in today is vastly different than the 1970s,” says Fowler. “We are giving it a sophisticated look and comedy is key.”
While there are big changes, the new Electric Company still retains the same educational goals as its predecessor. The show’s mission is to encourage kids, particularly 6 to 9 year olds, to improve their literacy. Like the original, the new show will plug reading and phonics, but is also adding vocabulary to the mix. Each episode will feature five words that are part of the same theme, such as five words related to heat.
While many people fondly recall the Electric Company they watched as kids – which most recently ran in reruns on Noggin from 1999 to 2003 -- it has taken years for someone to tackle the reinvention. Fowler, a former Nickelodeon exec, joined Sesame Workshop more than 8 years ago in creative development, says she was looking to make an impact on the children’s TV landscape. The Electric Company, she says, seemed a perfect vehicle to reach older children.
Fowler and her Sesame Workshop colleagues have intensely researched both kids’ reading habits and the show’s format. To reach as many kids as possibly, creators developed a “360 degree” experience for the show, explains Sesame Workshop’s director of education and research Scott Cameron. That means simultaneously putting The Electric Company’s content on TV and new media, and developing community outreach.
“We know some of our goals can best be achieve with the TV show, but others can be delivered online or through an after-school program,” Cameron says.
Online, kids will be able to download original songs from the show and even mash up videos and songs. They’ll also be able to watch episodes and play games.
Eventually, plans call to expand Electric Company’s platform to books, print materials and even games.
The Electric Company’s is part of PBS’ larger Ready to Learn Partnership with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Dept. of Education. It is one of two new shows – the other is Martha Speaks – included in the program. Existing shows in the program are Between the Lions, Sesame Street, SUPER WHY, and WordWorld.
As part of the program, the Electric Company’s is targeting older, struggling readers. To gage the show’s appeal, the program is being tested in 20 diverse markets, including Baltimore, San Antonio and southern Illinois. The show’s creators are partnering with libraries, after school programs and girls and boys clubs to develop supporting material, such as word games and sing a longs. In each market, they’ll stage community events, which Cameron likens to block parties, that will feature different stands with Electric Company-related activities and culminate with a live show.
Creators will also make materials available for educators to use in classrooms. For example, teachers will be able to download lessons, songs or video clips to integrate into their own reading exercises. For example, if a class is learning about the silent “e”, a teacher could download the Electric Company episode that tackles that tricky grammar rule.
“Educators will be able to access our material the day they are covering it, even if it is not that week’s episode,” says Cameron. “New technology allows for that now.”
Most importantly, the show’s creators say, they are trying to make an entertaining and educational show. “We are trying to do something breakthrough,” says Fowler. “We hope if we bring the right content, kids will find it.”