The Electric Company Returns
After its debut 38 years ago, the PBS show lights back up
I confess: when my editor suggested that I write an article about ‘the return of The Electric Company,‘ I wasn’t overwhelmingly excited. Sure, I have very fond memories of, about a hundred years ago, lying on the orange shag carpeting on my family room floor, wearing my Shaun Cassidy t-shirt, watching the original. But, I don’t know, Sesame Street is still around, ZOOM has been around off and on, Mr. Rogers was on until a few years ago. I just didn’t feel as though there was a hole in my life because The Electric Company wasn’t in it.
However, I began to research the original show, which was pulled off the air when I was 7, and all I can say is “Wow!”
The original cast included Morgan Freeman (!!!), Bill Cosby, Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Joan Rivers, among others. If we had known what we had back then, we would never have watched anything else! I guess, because I haven’t really thought about the show for a few decades, I didn’t realize how packed with talent it was.
And then I began to read about why they decided to bring the show back. The original show was developed to help kids develop their reading skills – a “graduation” from Sesame Street. And now another confession: As a school teacher who feels very strongly about the importance of reading (I don’t really know any teachers who don’t feel strongly about reading), I have often been a little skeptical about TV shows about reading. By its very nature, isn’t TV keeping kids from reading?
Well yes, and no, I guess.
It’s true that kids who are watching TV aren’t reading books.
But the sad truth is that we are in the middle of a literacy crisis in America. The numbers are there: 37 percent of American fourth graders are not reading at grade level. Even as a teacher who has spent the majority of my career with at-risk students, I am stymied by that number. It is a crisis.
We need to do better.
So PBS has spent an enormous amount of time and resources recreating this show to help children become better readers. The first year’s line-up includes Live With Regis & Kelly co-host Kelly Ripa, Academy Award winning actress, Whoopi Goldberg, kid comedian and actor, Kyle Massey, former NFL superstar and Today show correspondent Tiki Barber, rapper Common and 30 Rock‘s Jack McBrayer; music videos with Grammy Award winning musician Wyclef Jean and hip-hop superstar Sean Kingston; and original songs from singer/songwriter Ne-Yo, Saturday Night Live‘s Jimmy Fallon, rocker Pete Wentz and R&B star Mario. (If you didn’t instantly recognize every name on the list, don’t feel bad. I had to look up three of them).
They are working hard to appeal to today’s “media-driven” youth, and to try to reach some of those kids who are “not connecting to school and reading.” The kids they are trying to reach belong to every demographic group: Rich and poor, black and white, urban and rural. With the team of extremely talented writers and producers they have on deck, the new Electric Company is guaranteed to entertain while helping kids make that all-important and necessary reading connection.
And though I still believe it is better to be reading a book (the best way to become a better reader is, ironically, to read), I realize that some children are not there yet. They need a bridge to help them get to the point where they are able and willing to sit down and read a book. The Electric Company will be a funny, creative, engaging bridge to get kids there.
And while (my last confession) my children do not belong to that group of 37 percent who are not reading at grade level, you can bet we’ll be tuning in on January 19th for the two-hour premier … for a little bit of nostalgia, to satisfy my curiosity about the eclectic and hilarious cast, and so that I can know, at the end of the day, that I did everything I could to help my kids get ahead in the world.
Jennifer Trannon is a stay-home mom/part-time teacher who currently has neither orange shag carpeting nor her Shaun Cassidy t-shirt.