At some point in the process of growing up, it was no longer “cool” to watch Sesame Street or Mister Roger’s Neighborhood. Why should we when there was My Little Pony or Transformers or whatever it is the kids are watching these days. Hold on… I’m being told it’s still My Little Pony and Transformers, apparently. OK, good to know. The point is, if a show was going to get kids to actually learn something, it had to be something special.
The 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s were a treasure trove for these programs, and while there is a new breed… and the Gibraltar-esque Sesame Street, nostalgia makes it seem like nothing is the same and today’s kids are missing out. Anyway, here’s a look back at some of TV’s most memorable and departed educational TV series’ that aimed to teach us and entertain us at the same time.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (CBC 1963-1966, PBS 1966-2001)
We start with the King, even though Mister Rogers wasn’t an expert at teaching any one specific lesson, his genius was in the little moments and the soothing world of kindness and imagination that he invited us all into over the course of — counting his earlier efforts in the ’50s — a half century of children’s entertainment. Kids today probably know who Mister Rogers is, even though reruns of the show have mostly ceased. When the millennials rise up and become 30-year-old bloggers, they’ll be writing their own nostalgia-based love letters to this show.
Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (PBS, 1980)
We’re veering off just a tad for this one as it wasn’t necessarily aimed at a younger audience specifically. Some of the concepts that Carl Sagan’s brilliant PBS series touched upon weren’t exactly in the wheelhouse of your average middle-schooler. Never the less, Sagan attempted to showcase subjects such as astronomy, biology and physics in a way that made them accessible — even entertaining. On top of that, the music and visual effects on the show were extremely well done — so, even if you were too young to grasp what Sagan was talking about, at least it looked and sounded pretty.
In 2014, the Fox Network produced a modern version of the series with Family Guy‘s Seth MacFarlane and Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan. It was hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and won Emmy awards that year for writing, sound editing and music.
Bill Nye the Science Guy (PBS, 1993-1998)
Believe it or not, Bill Nye isn’t actually a scientist by trade. Yes, he did graduate from Cornell University (where, coincidentally enough, he took an Astronomy class taught by Carl Sagan) with a degree in mechanical engineering. He also worked for Boeing for a number of years. Most of his career, however, was in entertainment. After moonlighting as a stand-up comic, he eventually quit his day job and joined the cast of the Seattle sketch-comedy TV show, Almost Live! — a show that also helped launch the career of Joel McHale. It was on this show that the “Bill Nye the Science Guy” character was created.
Bill Nye the Science Guy ran on PBS Kids for five seasons. Among its many trademark segments were the musical parodies it featured on each episode. The very first episode, “Flight”, featured the song “Smells Like Air Pressure” performed by Nyevana.
Mr. Wizard’s World (Nickelodeon, 1983-1990)
While Bill Nye could be credited for teaching a generation of kids all about science, Don Herbert can lay claim to doing that for two generations.
Anyone who grew up with the early years of Nickelodeon will remember Herbert’s iconic run on Mr. Wizard’s World. Kindly old Herbert would invite one of the nearby local kids over to his home to demonstrate various different scientific principles. Nowadays, doing that would probably get you a visit from the police, but this was the 1980s (and also Canada). When he wasn’t busy sating the scientific curiosity of child actors, he would answer science questions sent in by viewers in his Ask Mr. Wizard segment.
But, Nickelodeon didn’t just pick up a smarty pants Canadian off the streets of Minnesota and gave him a kids’ TV show. NBC did that. Well, not exactly — Mr. Wizard’s World was actually a revival of an NBC show Herbert did in the 1950s called Watch Mr. Wizard. Much like his 1980s series, Herbert would educate youngsters on numerous aspects of science while somehow managing to be both cranky and warm-hearted at the same time. Don Herbert would pass away in 2007, but as the man himself put it once before, “My time on this Earth is getting shorter and shorter each day, but no matter how old I get, and even when I am dead, Mr. Wizard’s World will never die.”
Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? (PBS, 1991-1996)
If you can’t get kids to learn something with flashing lights and beeping noises, the next best thing is to give them prizes for knowing stuff. This may or may not be the concept behind Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego, a geography quiz show based on the popular computer game of the same name that ran on PBS for five seasons. Actually, we take that back — it was the concept behind the show.
Surveys conducted by National Geographic in the late 1980s concluded that one in four Americans couldn’t locate the Pacific Ocean on a map (it’s over by Nebraska, right?). A game show was fairly inexpensive to produce for PBS — although, as they’re public television, prizes had to be purchased by the network out of the show budget and couldn’t be donated by companies in exchange for advertising. For the role of The Chief, PBS hired Tony Award winner Lynne Thigpen , who stayed on for the entirety of the show’s run, as well as the follow-up program, Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego?
Also, that theme song is now stuck in your head. You’re welcome.
The Electric Company (PBS, 1971-1977)
The Electric Company was an educational series from the 1970s on PBS that had Spider-Man on it sometimes. OK, there’s more to it than that, but that’s still pretty awesome.
The Children’s Television Workshop, which had been producing Sesame Street for only a couple of years at that point, decided to put together a program for older viewers. Like The Street (that’s what we like to call it around here), The Electric Company had a racially diverse cast, with performers such as Rita Moreno, Morgan Freeman and Bill Cosby. The show used both sketch comedy and animated segments to introduce educational concepts to their viewers. One of the more memorable recurring sketches was The Adventures of Letterman, an animated superhero parody that featured such comedy legends as Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder and Joan Rivers, but which did not feature a gap-toothed man in a velcro suit.
The CTW wasn’t done with PBS-based non-Muppet programming, however…
3-2-1 Contact (PBS, 1980-1982)
While The Electric Company was centered around general education concepts (reading and writing and all that good stuff), 3-2-1 Contact was all about science. Based on another education program, The Curiosity Show, out of Australia, the show featured college-age hosts in a round-table discussing science-y stuff. The format was tinkered around with from time to time, but the series remained popular. In 1984, it was reported to have nearly 7 million viewers, which was pretty good for a show about boring science junk.
One of the more popular segments on the show was “The Bloodhound Gang“. Vikki, Zach and Cuff were “junior detectives” working for adult private investigator James Bloodhound (which we’re sure was totally not made up). Their adventures would sometimes stretch across numerous episodes of 3-2-1 Contact, making the order the episodes aired on PBS especially important. “The Bloodhound Gang” would eventually become the name of a popular music group that did a song about the Discovery Channel. There are slight differences between the two.
Oh, also the 3-2-1 Contact Magazine was pretty sweet, too.
Beakman’s World (CBS, 1992-1997)
Let’s clear something up right here and right now. Beakman’s World is not a rip-off of Bill Nye the Science Guy. Yes, they are both high energy shows with eccentric hosts that teach young people about science. Beakman’s World however debuted a year before Bill Nye — and it was actually based on the syndicated newspaper comic strip You Can with Beakman and Jax. Debuting on The Learning Channel (which would go on to give us other educational programming such as Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) in 1992, it moved to CBS as part of their Saturday morning lineup a year later.
Much Like Bill Nye, Beakman’s World attempted to explain basic scientific concepts such as density, gravity and flatulence (seriously, they had a segment about farts and it was awesome) using animation, puppets and more visually stimulating methods. It was eventually cancelled in 1998, but you can still catch it in syndication in some parts of the country.
There are a ton of other great departed educational programs out there — Schoolhouse Rock, Square One — what are some of your favorites?