Once upon a time, before he became a brilliant movie actor with an Oscar and dozens of films under his belt, Morgan Freeman was known to a generation of children as the Easy Reader, Count Dracula, and hosts of other characters on The Electric Company. From 1971-77, The Electric Company was a sort of hip older step-cousin to Sesame Street, and it helped teach a lot of kids how to read, or how to read better.
Starting in January, an entirely new generation of kids will get their own version of the show, being developed by Sesame Workshop and to be shown on PBS Kids as part of their Raising Readers effort. There are far too many kids with poor reading skills, so it seems to me that January is not a moment too soon. The new version won’t look like the old one, but that’s only natural—the old one was very much a 1970s show, with references to things that many adults today would have trouble remembering, let alone kids. And of course the new one has to conquer a huge problem the old one didn’t: It needs to be noticed in the cacophonous crowd of kids’ programs that exists today. In the original’s time, the only other major kids’ shows, really, were Sesame Street and Saturday morning cartoons; now, there are whole cable networks devoted to them.
The new Electric Company will feature a group of four culturally-diverse teens—Lisa, Keith, Jessica, and Hector—who have powers to make and manipulate words in (educationally) cool ways. From a natural-foods diner, somewhere in New York City, they fight word crimes, particularly those of the mischevious (but not truly evil) Pranksters. Each episode will tell a story featuring these characters, with animated and live-action phonics lessons sprinkled in here and there, focusing on vocabulary. That’s something the original show didn’t really do, but that’s another sign of the times, since PBS Kids’ research has shown that kids today need a lot of help on that front. They have also, as with the original, made sure to make the show funny, because they know they’ll hold kids’ interest a whole lot better if they do. And there will, again, be someone in a gorilla suit making occasional appearances. (There’ve been rumors of Rita Moreno making a cameo on the new show, and I’m holding out a little hope for Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby, too.)
As you’d expect for a show premiering in 2009, there will be an online piece as well, not to mention a magazine being published by Marvel Comics. As usual with Sesame Workshop shows, they’ve done and are continuing to do a ton of testing of the show’s concepts, to make sure they’re hitting the right notes. They have already begun conducting an outreach program to twenty low-income, low-literacy locations around the United States, to inform parents and kids about the program’s impending premiere.
Speaking as someone who grew up watching (mostly reruns of) the original show, and who bought the first set of DVDs of the original to show to his kids, I’m really excited about the new one. At first I thought it sounded too different from the original, but then I realized that the new one has to be aimed at today’s kids just as the original was at kids of its era. My kids will definitely be watching the show when it premieres. Until then, you can watch some short previews on the show’s website.