“Come on and ZOOM!”: ZOOM and 1970s American Childhood
From 1972 through 1978, WGBH produced one of the nation’s most celebrated and best-loved children’s television shows, ZOOM. Aimed at an audience of children from about seven to twelve years of age, ZOOM reached millions through the expanding national public television network of the 1970s. ZOOM’s conceit was that it was a show created by children, for children: young viewers sent in the ideas for its content, while ordinary children from the Boston area served as its cast members. Perhaps two million viewers wrote in to ZOOM to offer advice and ideas or to ask for information about the show, and ZOOM showcased a wide range of their experiences and ideas. In truth, the adults who created ZOOM had much more of a role in selecting and shaping the material that went into the show than they let on. However, ZOOM reflected the goals of a new generation of producers of children’s programming in the 1970s: to empower young people and to reflect more fully the diversity of American children’s experiences.
"Dear Zoom, I like your show a lot. Some kids just watch your show for something to do. I thin kids shouldn’t watch your show unless they really want to learn something. You can learn a lot of fun games and nutrishosh foods. I always get mad when you go off the air. I think your show is educational." - nine-year-old girl from Maine (all spellings original)
"Dear ZOOM, Me, my brother, and my sister would like to be members of youre club. My brother is 5, my sister is 3, I am 7. We watch youre show all the time. We injoy it. You are very talented. Please send us ZOOM cards as soon as posibiel.” - seven-year-old girl from Michigan
"Dear Zoom, Even though I’m thirteen, I watched your show this evening, It’s way-out. It’s the best show any T.V. network has put-on in a loooong time." - thirteen-year-old boy, location unknown. 1
“We’re gonna ZOOM, ZOOM, ZOOM-A-ZOOM.” So sang the ZOOMers, a diverse group of Boston-area children of nine to thirteen years of age, in the opening sequence of the weekly television show ZOOM. “Come on give it a try/We’re gonna show you why/We’re gonna teach you to fly high/Come on and Zoom! Come on and Zoom Zoom!” Scenes of the cast dancing energetically were intercut with brief segments in which each of the children introduced themselves by their first name. Through a half-hour program in an eclectic variety format, ZOOMers demonstrated skills that any child could learn. They performed in short ZOOMplays; followed viewer-suggestions drawn from a large ZOOMbarrel; explained craft project ZOOMdos; offered recipe ZOOMgoodys; spoke in ZOOM’s “secret” language, Ubbi Dubbi; and discussed serious issues such as pollution and parental divorce during ZOOMraps. Every episode ended with an upbeat song and dance number. The show’s distinctive claim was that its young audience, who sent in the ideas for the jokes, plays, games and other activities, dictated all of the content that the ZOOMers showcased on television.
Zoom was one of the most popular American children’s weekly television shows of the 1970s. Produced by WGBH in Boston and distributed to about 125 PBS stations nationwide, the show was viewed by millions of children across the country from its premiere in January 1972 to its finale in February 1978. For many children of the era, Zoom represented a special kind of program, one in which children were front and center, not only as performers but also as creators of the show’s content. The theme song asked: “Who are you? What do you do? How are you? Let’s hear from you! We need you!” And children responded. At the show’s peak, children around the country sent 20,000 letters to Zoom every week, seeking information about Zoom activities or suggesting new projects for the cast. Over the course of Zoom’s run, 49 children from the Boston area worked as ZOOMers in groups of from seven to ten children per season; during this period, several million children around the country wrote in to the show. Except where adults appeared incidentally, as in the short ZOOMguest documentaries that focused on children from around the country doing interesting or unusual things, each half-hour show put an emphasis on children making and sharing their own fun. 2
Zoom emerged during an era in which public discussion of the relationship of children to television had reached a fevered pitch, inspiring numerous studies and books. One of the most prominent of these, a study of the effects of television violence on children published by the office of the Surgeon General in 1971, concluded that children were television enthusiasts who exerted significant control over family viewing. The average American child between the ages of three and twelve watched over two hours of television per day, including many shows intended for adult audiences. Children were frequently in control of choosing the television programs their families watched in the early evening, and parents regularly solicited their children’s advice on what to watch. Yet much of what children selected included scenes of violence. In addition, many children’s shows were punctuated by commercials and product tie-ins marketing directly to children. Were these programs any good for children? Or, as many parents increasingly worried, were children being harmed by their susceptibility to both televised violence and advertisements? 3
By the late 1960s, new voices in television insisted that the medium could, in fact, be thoughtful, creative and good for children. Proponents of educational television expressed enthusiasm for shows that could teach children, inculcate good values and better prepare them for the world beyond their living rooms. Zoom exemplified this kind of project. Steering children’s television toward new ends, it sought to represent a broader range of American children’s lives as well as to serve as a resource for the exchange of interesting information among children. Its success testified to its ability to connect deeply with a core audience of children who felt invested in the Zoom project.
The Origins of Zoom
Local television shows with educational content existed before the late 1960s and 1970s, but they tended to appear only on local stations and were few in number. The critically acclaimed The Children's Corner, hosted by a Pittsburgh public television station, was one such show; there, Fred Rogers developed many of the puppet characters who would later appear in the fantasy sequences of the nationally syndicated Mister Roger’s Neighborhood from 1968 onward. In 1966, television producer Joan Cooney set out to create an educational television show for preschoolers at the height of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “war on poverty.” With Lloyd Morrisett, a Carnegie Foundation vice-president, Cooney developed what would become Sesame Street, a program to provide early educational stimulation for underserved populations via television. While Head Start initiatives of the 1960s supported inner-city and rural preschoolers, Cooney and Morrisett argued that television could serve far more young children, and far less expensively. Sesame Street’s brand of education aimed to entertain while introducing young children to the alphabet, basic numbers and shapes, and questions of problem-solving. It also modeled racial diversity through the multiracial cast who performed alongside puppets (or, Muppets) of various hues. When, after several years of program design and testing, Sesame Street debuted in November 1969, it was an immediate success story nationwide, not only among the disadvantaged young children for whom it was designed but also among the middle-class American preschoolers who quickly became its largest audience. Its lively skits and songs, and its sympathetic cast of recurring characters made the show beloved among young Americans and their parents. By 1973, nine million American children watched Sesame Street every week. The Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), the organization founded to develop Sesame Street, quickly became a powerful force in children’s educational television. 4
The federal government took note, and in 1971, the U.S. Office of Education asked the CTW to develop a new television show focused on reading and literacy that could be shown in elementary schools. In response, the CTW created The Electric Company. Whereas Sesame Street focused on preschoolers, The Electric Company targeted second- to fourth-graders and was designed to be integrated into school lesson plans. Like its predecessor, The Electric Company had a racially diverse cast, including entertainers such as Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby, and Morgan Freeman, and it aimed to reach children as savvy (if age-specific) participants in popular culture. The Electric Company’s first episode, which was devoted in part to discussions of the sounds made by the letter “g,” used the word “groovy” as a example; the theme song’s lyrics (“We’re going to turn it on, we’re going to turn on the power”) could be heard as alluding to both the drug culture and civil rights activism; and the show’s masthead featured psychedelic graphics. This program was another major success for the CTW. The Electric Company reached almost as wide an audience as Sesame Street; according to one 1974 estimate, the show’s third season had over 6.5 million viewers, more than half of them watching it at school, the others at home after school. One in three elementary schools in the nation incorporated the show into lesson plans in some way, whether students read The Electric Company Magazine (1972-87) or watched the program itself. Among schools equipped with televisions, almost sixty percent broadcast the show. 5
As these examples suggest, the late 1960s and 1970s were a time when a small number of innovative television programs for children were extremely influential in children’s culture. In this context, WGBH producer Christopher Sarson hit on the idea for a new television program that would, in the idiom of cinematography, “Zoom in” on children’s own interests. At the time, Sarson was the first producer of the new series, Masterpiece Theatre (1971-), at PBS’s Boston public television station. He had become interested in children’s television after he became a father and noticed that there were few good television options for children who had outgrown Mr. Rogers. Sarson was also intrigued by the potential of a new children’s magazine, KIDS (1970-75), founded in the Boston suburb of Cambridge. KIDS’ stories and articles were written and edited by children ages fifteen or younger, though its founding editors were adults. 6
Sarson envisioned something similar for television: a show with child hosts and viewer-created content. Unlike Sesame Street and The Electric Company, which aimed to teach skills—from phonics to numeracy--that would be useful at school, Zoom was less explicitly pedagogical. Still, it shared with these other programs similar goals: to make children’s television more stimulating; to represent childhood via more diverse casts; and to share interesting and creative ideas. The show’s magazine format and casual style, meanwhile, were influenced by several other television shows of the period. One 1971 draft of a WGBH promotional letter for Zoom compares it to the sketch comedy show Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In (NBC, 1968-73), the satirical political variety show Great American Dream Machine (PBS, 1971-71), and the humorous documentary series for children about how things are made, Hot Dog (NBC, 1970-71), as well as the more obvious Sesame Street. All of these shows had an off-the-cuff sensibility that Zoom would emulate. 7
Sarson’s interest in children’s programming was also undoubtedly influenced by his wife’s media activism. Evelyn Sarson was one of the founders and, from 1968 to 1972, the first president of Action for Children’s Television (ACT), a lobbying group based in the Boston suburb of Newton. ACT asked why network children’s programming had so much violence and so many advertisements, and was of such low quality. Led by Evelyn Sarson and Peggy Charren (ACT’s first chairman, and subsequent president from 1972 onward), members of the group, like many other media activists of the period, set about collecting useful data to make their case. For example, they calculated that the Boston version of the popular half-hour show Romper Room included five minutes of advertisements, six minutes of product placement (via children playing with advertisers’ products), and six more minutes of children playing with toys that were not specifically advertised that day. As ACT concluded, seventeen of the thirty minutes of Romper Room were devoted to selling products to children.8
Although early media accounts sometimes condescendingly dismissed the members of ACT as “militant housewives,” the middle-class mothers who founded ACT, who generally had professional experience working outside the home prior to having children, became a force in pressing the government and the major television networks to improve standards in children’s television. In the late 1960s and 1970s, ACT campaigned for limits or outright bans on the number of commercials in children’s programs; to eliminate any mention of brand names on children’s television programs; and to mandate a minimum number of hours of children’s programming per week on the major networks. While ACT did not entirely succeed in its goals, Evelyn Sarson and her colleagues at ACT quickly gained national attention and were influential in pressuring major television networks to begin to self-regulate, with the support of such prominent figures in children’s television as Joan Cooney, Fred Rogers, and Muppeteer Jim Henson. 9
Zoom combined liberal aspirations for children’s television with values that emanated from the counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s: simplicity, authenticity, anti-materialism and environmental awareness. A number of ZOOMdos emphasized recycling materials to make interesting toys, rather than acquiring new playthings: for example, ZOOMers showed viewers how to join elastic bands to create “Chinese jump ropes” and how to make “guitars” out of plastic milk jugs. In ZOOMgoodys, brand names on ingredients used in recipes were always covered up with plain type. The cast dressed in identical striped shirts and jeans, which downplayed their class and racial differences, and for the first few seasons ZOOMers often went barefoot, further signaling their informality. The show’s deliberately casual style was also on display in its song and dance numbers. While these performances were choreographed, they had rough edges and were obviously the work of amateurs. In all these ways, Zoom emphasized do-it-yourself creative fun.10
From its first episode onward, Zoom was a hit among adults as well as children. Zoom won Emmys for children’s programming in 1973, 1974 and 1977, and media critics were unequivocally positive. As Life magazine reported after the show’s 1972 premiere, “Zoom is graduate school after Mister Roger’s Neighborhood.” Cecil Smith, writing for the Los Angeles Times, reported that same winter that “[m]y children would rather see Zoom than eat” (a logistical issue for Zoom-loving families, because new episodes were broadcast around the dinner hour). Throughout the show’s run, many parents also wrote in to express their support. One California mother praised the show’s liberating models of boyhood for her teenage sons: “It’s good for boys to see other boys who are not afraid to dance, and sing, and play clapping games. Those children represent the spontaneous creative, intelligent people we want our children to become.” A Minnesota mother, meanwhile, explained that she found the show’s lack of rudeness refreshing: “I am a Christian and I am fussy about TV shows. I’m thankful you don’t use such words as ‘Shut up’ and the other slang words." 11
Despite this wide-ranging praise, Zoom’s funding was always precarious, a reflection of the politics of public television in the 1970s. In the 1960s, nearly all educational channels had been affiliated with National Educational Television, which supplied shows like Sesame Street and Mister Roger’s Neighborhood to their affiliates. Much of the funding for these early productions came from private foundations, particularly the Ford and Carnegie foundations. In the wake of a Carnegie Commission report of 1967 calling for better and more diverse educational programming, public television was reorganized. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), founded in 1968, began distributing funding to public television stations around the country, and they in turn became part of the new Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1970. The Carnegie Commission had proposed a tax on television sets to fund the CPB and thus to insulate public broadcasting from political influence, but instead, the CPB’s funding stream was made dependent on annual Congressional appropriations and its board entirely staffed by presidential appointees. As a result, the funding stream for the CPB (and for PBS shows) was politically unpredictable. In the lean economic times of the 1970s, funding crises regularly beset public television. In 1972, for instance, President Richard Nixon vetoed the CPB’s funding bill because he found some PBS programs to be overly critical and controversial. Zoom received regular funding from the U.S. Office of Education, the CPB, and PBS, but its executive producers had to lobby to ensure the show’s survival.12
In 1973, when Zoom was threatened with cancellation, its close relationship with its audience helped to save the show. After the CPB failed to renew Zoom’s grant, the Zoom staff immediately organized what they called a ZOOMalarm for the following week’s episode. ZOOMer Maura looked directly at the camera and told the audience at home that “Zoom may be taken off the air. The people who decide are in Washington. If you love Zoom and want Zoom to stay on, send us your picture. We will send it to Washington to show you care.” The producers of Zoom ran a small advertisement with much the same message in the New York Times. Just as Zoom was a product of its era, so too was its ZOOMalarm a savvy use of media campaigning in the style of ACT and similar liberal lobbying groups. Zoom was effectively training children to become activist citizens who could advocate for their own interests. “I want to save Zoom!!!” wrote one girl. “I like Zoom. Please keep it on the air,” wrote a six-year-old boy. Even Julia Child, whose cooking show was produced by WGBH, apparently made a special trip to plead for Zoom’s funding line. Meanwhile, the media described the ZOOMalarm as a sign of its own democratic process; as Newsweek noted, “Could anything be more participatory than a children’s program relying on its audience for ideas, on children for its performers, and on public opinion for its very survival?” The ensuing press coverage, and the tens of thousands of letters generated by children, persuaded the CBP to reconsider its decision.13
Zoom reflected a generational suspicion of advertising and consumerism in children’s culture, but because it could rely on government funding for only part of its production costs, it also depended on the support of the corporations that advertised directly to youth on commercial television programs. Like Sesame Street, Zoom’s support came from both the Ford Foundation, and from corporate sponsors General Foods and McDonalds. In 1973, NBC broadcast a “tune in” spot for Zoom, featuring the iconic restaurant clown Ronald McDonald, and McDonalds restaurants planned a counter card depicting the current cast and promoting Zoom: “It’s of kids, by kids, and for kids. And it’s kinda wild.” The show itself, however, kept commercial culture at a deliberate remove. In the 1970s, an era of political and economic uncertainty, many adults worried that children’s culture was too violent and too commercial. Educational television programs proposed solutions to these concerns that entertained as they instructed. For parents who sought refuge for their children from an overly commercialized media sphere, Zoom was appealing as a vehicle of playful enrichment. And for children, Zoom was just plain fun.14
Children as Active Agents
Zoom made its connection to its audience a central part of the show. In every episode, the ZOOMers reminded viewers to contact Zoom by mail with their suggestions (“Send it to Zoom!”). This regular repetition of WGBH’s street address likely made “02134” the best-known zip code among American children of the 1970s. Given the volume of mail that Zoom received, it is clear that many children took this appeal seriously. By the mid-1970s, Zoom had received between 1.5 and 2 million letters. Some were requests for information, especially for ZOOMcards, which explained some of the harder or more complex crafts such as tie-dying cloth or making a raft out of sticks and branches. Many viewers wrote in with story and game ideas, or sent ideas for ZOOMraps based on their own personal problems or concerns. One child from Arkansas, for instance, asked that ZOOMers do a rap about “how would you feel if you had a gerbil, and your dad didn’t like him. I have to move away in July and I don’t want to leave him.” Among the show’s most fervent fans, some wrote repeatedly, always including SASEs (which were, as the cast repeatedly explained, self-addressed stamped envelopes) to ensure a response. In the late 1970s, a thirteen-year-old girl from Nebraska who had been watching the show for five years estimated that “This is about the 10 letter I’ve written to you and I must say I am impressed. Every time I write you always send an answer and it usually comes in about a week."15
To deal with the deluge of mail this project represented, Zoom enlisted adult volunteers to sort the incoming mail into categories. The volunteers separated the plays, stories, poems, talent requests (“I want to be on Zoom”), games, ZOOMdos, jokes and riddles, and other ideas before forwarding them to Zoom staff. In one five-day period in January 1975, for example, volunteers processed over 11,000 letters. Of these, about a third included SASEs and requested photos of the cast or information on ZOOMdos. Another third had no SASEs and made no request or contribution; these letters were most often affirmations, on the order of “I like Zoom.” The others were likely contributions of one kind or another.16
Looking at some of these letters, a sampling of which have been preserved in the Zoom archive, it is clear that the show’s audience was wider than the 7-12 year olds who were its official imagined viewers. Some of the letters came from children so young that they needed help in writing to the show. As one Minneapolis mother explained, “My son loves your program. He is 6 years old. He asked me to send you this—as his good idea. I don’t know what it is. It may be just papers glued together.” Even parents of toddlers wrote in to say that their children enjoyed the show. And teenagers, especially those who had grown up with Zoom, also continued to watch the show and to write in, though a few of them wrote specifically to ask whether they might now be too old to keep watching. As one seventeen-year-old high school junior from Iowa explained, “I really enjoy Zoom! A lot of my friends watch Zoom also!”16
Children who wrote in and contributed ideas likely felt encouraged because they knew that nothing had to be flawless to be on Zoom. The show prized fun above polish; ZOOMers often appeared on camera performing less than perfectly, whether laughing through a play about a princess locked in a tower, or making a sloppy banana-orange sherbet shake. The point was to try new things, not to do them with anxious care. Having suggested specific ideas, however, some viewers wrote in again to express disappointment if their suggestions did not appear on television. “I have sent in a lot of things to do. But I have never seen them on your show. I have waited and waited and waited for a long long time,” wrote one Californian. Another viewer wrote bitterly that “I wroght before and you fuckers didn’t have a rap about it.” A third noted that despite his having written over 100 letters over the course of four years (some directly to Zoom and others to politicians on Zoom’s behalf) none of his letters to Zoom had ever appeared on the air. Even so, he reflected, he had benefitted from the show: “I feel that all forty-two Zoomers and I have become personal friends.” As WGBH’s archive makes clear, children were eager both to participate in Zoom culture and to be celebrated as creators of Zoom content.17
Yet Zoom was not truly child-scripted. The adult producers of the show served as gatekeepers, determining which ideas would appear on each episode. They rewrote some letters for clarity and edited most for brevity before ZOOMers read them on the air. In one case, for instance, the adult staff selected a play written by a girl from Texas, but in lieu of the “hippie” character the girl had indicated, the staff rewrote the script to include a “panhandler,” and they converted her slangy line, “Ain’t no place to go,” into standard English. Where producers could not find good examples of the kind of material they sought, they found other ways to get it; in the early years of Zoom, for instance, few films made by children were of high enough visual and sound quality to run on air, so the producers turned to a Boston-area art studio where children took courses in how to make animated films to find useable material. The staff was also motivated by a desire to showcase the national diversity and range of the show’s audience. When sorting through children’s letters, staff tried to include letters from diverse regions of the country. From the first season onward, they filmed ZOOMguest documentaries across the country, in Colorado, Washington, California, Virginia, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Tennessee, New Mexico, Texas and Arizona, as well as the New England states, and their efforts to highlight children’s diverse experiences led them in specific directions. Though thousands of eager children wrote to Zoom asking to be ZOOMguests, the producers would appear to have found most ZOOMguests through their own contacts. 18
However, Zoom deliberately removed such signs of adult influence from the finished episodes. The children who narrated their experiences as ZOOMguests, for example, appeared to be chatting conversationally, even though they were in many cases responding directly to adults’ questions that were edited out of the final documentaries. Similarly, the ZOOMraps were not self-directed. From the outside, these appeared to be filmed conversations among children who were exploring serious themes such as pollution and heaven. However, the making of ZOOMraps involved an adult asking the cast members questions off-camera. Subsequently, in the editing process these conversations were condensed and the obvious adult influence was eliminated. 19
If this was mildly duplicitous, it was also pragmatic. Zoom’s emphasis on children’s agency reflected the era’s attention to disempowered and marginal groups: in this case, children. However, creating a participatory television show for children was at least partially in tension with making a successful and appealing product. Adults, not children, had the professional connections to build these new visions of children’s community, and the vision to keep the content snappy. The ZOOMers attended regular schools full-time, and none of them was a professional performing artist prior to appearing on the show. Moreover, relatively few preteens were naturally articulate performers. Consider the fate of a similar show, Take a Giant Step (NBC, 1971-72) that debuted when Zoom was first in production. The conceit of Take a Giant Step was very similar to that of Zoom: a mix of entertainment and information in a magazine format, with young teenage hosts on live television discussing issues of interest to a preadolescent audience. Like Zoom, Take a Giant Step encouraged viewers to interact with the show by mail, and floated the idea that some viewers could make their own films for the show. Unfortunately, the rotating hosts on Take a Giant Step proved to be unpolished and awkward. Critics called the show’s idea innovative, but found the overall effect uncomfortable and boring. Ultimately, most young fans of Zoom didn’t know or care about the show’s degree of adult mediation. What they saw on their television screens was satisfying, inasmuch as it affirmed their own sense of their capabilities and concerns.20
It is no wonder that from Zoom’s premiere onward, children from around the nation pleaded to join the cast. The pilot episode, which was broadcast on WGBH several times in early September 1971 to test Zoom’s appeal, spurred the first of many such requests. “I am twelve years old. I wondered if by chance you would like or need another person for your cast,” wrote one early viewer. “Gee I sure would like to be on that show,” noted another. Because Zoom represented the children of each cast as ordinary Americans doing activities that any child could emulate, being on Zoom seemed a relatively attainable goal. As one boy from the New York suburbs wrote in 1977, he was spurred to ask about becoming a cast member because he “[…] realized that the kids on Zoom weren’t any kind of fancy child actors but just regular kids.” When Zoom staff created a fact sheet to send to children addressing many of the most common letter-writers’ queries, the question of how to get onto the show was among them. “Because Zoom doesn’t want to disrupt a ZOOMer’s private life any more than is absolutely necessary, it is not possible to make special arrangements to live with a friend, commute to Boston or move to Boston just to be on Zoom,” the letter explained. To address children’s curiosity about life as a ZOOMer, the eighth episode of the first season included a rap about “What’s it like to be on TV."21
For former ZOOMers, being part of ZOOM was very exciting. “It was very much like being in the magic of childhood,” ZOOMer Jonathan recalled. “It was such an incredible education, even at that age, to see what goes into putting together a TV show,” reflected Maura. “It was the best experience I ever had in my life,” Arcadio noted. ZOOMers also enjoyed the fame: as Andrae recalled, “What was exciting was to walk down the street, to go in a store, and have all these kids peeking at me around corners.” Yet many ZOOMers found that their fame came with a price: loss of privacy and peer jealousy. For David, “School was hard. […] Everything you did was echoed … You were completely ostracized.” Nancy recalled having to run out of Boston’s Symphony Hall with her mother because fans were chasing her. ZOOM staff recognized these problems. In a letter to the parents of the 1974-75 season’s cast, they explained that “We try very hard to shield the ZOOMers from this occupational hazard of being seen regularly on television. We do not give out the ZOOMers’ last names or telephone numbers, except to other ZOOMers and their parents. In addition, we try to downplay the ‘stardom’ aspect of ZOOM, so that the kids won’t get a ‘stuck up’ attitude and thereby invite the jealousy of others.” ZOOMers were known to viewers only by their first names, they didn’t travel outside of the Boston region or appear in advertisements, and in fact their contracts prohibited them from parlaying their fame on ZOOM into appearances in advertisements or other television shows for several years after their time on ZOOM. ZOOM did what it could to preserve the notion that these children were ordinary kids, plucked from obscurity, who returned to it once their time on television was at an end.22
However, an odd effect of the ways in which public television stations scheduled episodes of the show was that earlier episodes (and thus the earlier casts) didn’t really go away. While ZOOM was designed to be broadcast once weekly in an early evening timeslot, its success inspired many local PBS affiliates to broadcast reruns every weekday afternoon. Even though the casts changed every season, with a few younger ZOOMers remaining for a second season, former cast members continued to appear on television. Children who regularly watched ZOOM often felt connected to several casts at once, whom they saw out of sequence again and again. Reruns kept ZOOMers in the public eye for years to come.
Many individual viewers developed favorites among the cast members. Some children wrote specifically to a particular ZOOMer or else asked for a ZOOMcard with a photo of one ZOOMer or another. “To ZOOM, And to especially Tishy. I want that ZOOM Card,” wrote one boy. At a time when racial minorities were significantly underrepresented in American children’s popular culture, many minority children felt connected to and wrote expressly to ZOOMers of their own race. Some boys and girls sent notes to specific cast members on whom they had crushes. “In my book you be a fox and a half if ever I saw one,” wrote one Oklahoma boy to the ZOOMer girl who was the object of his affection, while a Missouri girl asked, “What would you do if you had special feelings about someone on t.v.? I do but what should I do?” before requesting the autograph and photograph of a particular boy from the cast, and offering a photograph of herself in return. None of these letters and photographs reached their intended recipients. The ZOOM staff did what they could to insulate ZOOMers from fan attention. In an unusual exception to this rule, when Sarson wanted ZOOMer Bernadette to explain on camera how she did her signature arm wave, he showed her some of the fan mail asking about her special skill.23
While ZOOMers shared tidbits about their lives in ZOOMraps, only rarely did the show focus closely on the personal life of a single cast member. In episode 315, ZOOM broadcast a short film featuring ZOOMer Ann getting braces on her teeth. As Ann explained in a voiceover, she had a fang “that made me look like half a vampire.” Getting braces made her so worried about what her peers would say that for days she tried to keep her mouth closed while talking. “I was afraid people would call me all those names they always call people who have braces. Tinsel teeth, mental mouth, railroad tracks, stove head.” The story ended on a positive note, as Ann came to realize that “actually braces are sort of a status symbol in our school because almost everybody wears them.” These kinds of documentary films, focusing on small but important moments in children’s lives, were often very meaningful to ZOOM viewers. One parent later wrote in appreciation that “Your film on braces was very effective as we are facing this situation and find that it relieved some pressure.” Most fans would never be on ZOOM, but their letters to the show suggest that they experienced the cast members as supportive friends.24
Children found in ZOOM a kind of clearinghouse for interesting ideas and activities. They tried to speak Ubbi-Dubbi, and they puzzled over why Fannee Doollee (the subject of a number of early puzzles) liked certain things and hated others. They were inspired to make terrariums and tie-dyed fabric based on ZOOMdos. And they picked up on ideas from the show. One parent noted that after an episode of ZOOM in which the cast members played a game of jacks, her daughter insisted on getting jacks; everywhere they looked, the stores were out of jacks because, she contended, other ZOOM fans had already bought them up. Here were the most visible effects of ZOOM’s interactive children’s realm and children’s own investment in the show.25
The Inclusive Politics of ZOOM
ZOOM deliberately fostered not only an imagined community of children but an inclusive community as well. In the wake of the civil rights movement, anti-poverty activism, second-wave feminism and the beginnings of a disability rights movement, ZOOM made a strong commitment to showcasing the diversity of American children’s experiences. For one, ZOOMers modeled friendships across lines of racial difference. This was a far cry from the all-white Mouseketeers of the 1950s-era Mickey Mouse Show. By the 1970s, in response to the critiques of civil rights activists, some degree of diversity in children’s programming was becoming mainstream. On ZOOM, the opening montage included a handshake between a white and a black child, and images of children of different races.
ZOOM’s representations of friendships across race were at odds with the racial conflict taking place in the city of Boston during the period in which the show was produced. While the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, had promised an end to legal school segregation, some Southern schools were only desegregating in the 1970s. Meanwhile, across the country long-term patterns of racial discrimination in housing had effectively made many school districts racially homogenous. Organized busing of white and black students to other Boston neighborhoods began in 1974, during ZOOM’s third season, after a federal judge found that the city of Boston had discriminated against black students by rigging districts to establish de jure segregation. During the two years in which busing was implemented, one third of white students left Boston’s public schools amid great rancor.
In one unusual ZOOMrap from season four, the cast gathered to discuss the busing debate. Tishy, a white girl from South Boston where busing conflicts were particularly acute, suggested that “the whites should stay with the whites, the blacks should stay with the blacks, the Puerto Ricans should stay with the Puerto Ricans.” The others responded with comments such as “Nooo … that would be boring.” For a child viewer unacquainted with Boston politics, the brief discussion was likely perplexing, as the issue of busing was never explained and the children (with the exception of Tishy, who said that she felt threatened on her own street) did not speak eloquently. The rap ended in typical ZOOM fashion, with the ZOOMers agreeing that they should all live together in peace.26
Many American children of the 1970s lived in neighborhoods or attended public schools where one racial group or another strongly predominated. ZOOMers were no exception. For many of the cast members, the interracial friendships they formed on the show felt novel. Tommy, a white boy, later recalled that “I got to be friends with Kenny and Nancy [two African-American cast-mates], and that would never have happened in my neighborhood or in my school because there weren’t any black kids there at all.” Andrae, an African-American girl from a mostly black neighborhood, later recalled that when she first met the diverse group of children who would be in her cast, “I think I instantly put a defense up. But it didn’t last long because I liked the kids, because we were all just kids.” These close relationships did not always survive outside the studio; Lori later recalled that she went on to junior high school with her former cast-mate Timmy, whom she considered a friend, but at school “he hung out with a different crowd, because the whites and blacks were kind of split at my junior high school.” But if the world outside the show remained racially complex, ZOOM provided an important example of diverse children getting along well.27
On the issue of gender equality, ZOOM similarly modeled a liberal vision without engaging directly in discussions of gender politics. On the show, both boys and girls danced, led and followed activities, made ZOOMgoodys, and dressed in the uniform of jeans and striped tops (which some of them personalized with a hat or a necklace). Only occasionally did ZOOM directly address feminist concerns. The ZOOMguests in episode 329, for instance, were the Marshfield Goldiggers of Marshfield, Massachusetts, a girls’ hockey team playing against a local boys’ team. In the wake of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, girls were beginning to gain more opportunities to participate in team sports. As one of the Goldiggers explained, “Some people don’t think that girls play rough sports, but we are all on a girls’ hockey team in Marshfield Massachusetts. People used to laugh at the idea of girls playing hockey, but a lot of us wanted to play so a couple of years ago, one of our fathers started up a team.” The ZOOMguest episode used short interviews with members of both hockey teams to address children’s ideas about the place of girls in “rough” sports. While the girls expressed confidence in their abilities, the boys offered a range of opinions about whether girls belonged on the ice. One boy stated that “I think hockey is a boys’ game. I don’t think girls should play, ‘cause a home for a girl is in the house.” Another boy contended that “I don’t think it’s unfeminine for the girls to play hockey. They should be allowed to if they want to.” While the Goldiggers lost their game by a significant margin, the film showed them playing with determination.28
After this particular ZOOMguest segment, the episode turned to a ZOOMrap in which the cast discussed gender and sports. ZOOMer Donna noted that boys’ sports always had priority at her school’s gym. Mike claimed that girls played different sports than boys, while Timmy suggested that co-ed football would be dangerous for women. This ZOOMrap inspired a number of children to write in with complaints about what they had heard from the boys. One girl from North Carolina was upset that “Timmy said ‘if girls play football with the boys they would hurt themselves.’ Well at are school about 10 girls including me played a game of football against more boy’s! And we played with a small football and we (the girls) won! So girls can play football.” A girl from Iowa wrote directly to Timmy: “Dear Timmy I didn’t like what you said about girls will get hurt if they play football. I bet I can play better than you and a lot of boy’s on ZOOM.” And a boy, also from Iowa, was upset to hear that “Mike said that volleyball was an all girl’s sport, well, I am an eleven year old boy and play volleyball for my school and almost won the city championship.” These viewers understood themselves to be in conversation with children whose ideas about gender relations needed to be corrected. 29
Through ZOOMguests, ZOOM offered glimpses of the lives of a diverse range of children, including many whose stories were rarely told on television: a young Chicano migrant worker picking crops with his parents in Colorado; a white boy living on a California commune; a Chinese-American immigrant girl working at her parents’ restaurant in New Jersey; an Italian-American immigrant who lived with older siblings instead of his parents in Massachusetts. Not all of these stories were entirely happy, nor were all of the children pursuing their hearts’ desire. Many ZOOMguests were working to help their parents, whether they were picking crops, learning to be auctioneers, pumping gas, or waitressing. These documentaries often focused on the importance of perseverance for a greater cause. Attention to children’s work was also highlighted in the stories of middle-class children who were artists and athletes. “I’m committed to my instrument so I might as well work hard at it if I want to make a career out of it,” explained violinist Nicholas Danielson in one episode.30 Marcie Ravech, a gymnast, explained similarly in another episode that “At this point gymnastics is my entire life. [..] It’s a total commitment."31 Although ZOOM was playful, ZOOMguest segments often emphasized children whose lives were not all fun and games.
ZOOM’s emphasis on diversity extended to some of the most historically invisible children in American society, children with disabilities. Starting in the first season onward, ZOOMguests included children with visual or auditory disabilities. In ZOOM’s final season in 1977-78, when many disabled children were being mainstreamed into regular public schools as a result of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, ZOOM received funding from the U.S. Office of Education to create several integrated segments about disabled children for the show. ZOOMguest Dee Armstrong of California, for example, was a bright and thoughtful twelve-year-old with Larsen’s Syndrome, which had caused her to experience frequent joint dislocations. The documentary on Armstrong, which appeared in ZOOM’s final episode in February 1978, followed her transition from a school for students with disabilities to a mainstream school. The short film represented Armstrong as a talented competitor in wheelchair basketball and as a girl with the confidence to forge her own path. The documentary also gave her a platform from which to speak about disability and prejudice. As she concluded, “I sometimes do wish that people wouldn’t just sit there with their eyes on canes. Why can’t they look at me instead of my cane. I am a person myself. I just need a little extra equipment.” Over the course of the period in which ZOOM was broadcast, a number of children with disabilities wrote in specifically to praise the program for showing the lives of children like themselves.32
Through various means, ZOOM opened up a wider world to its viewers. It took seriously the notion that children of all kinds had talent and skill. It encouraged children to share their ideas. And more broadly, it helped to consolidate liberal ideals for a younger generation, laying the groundwork for a more inclusive and accepting society. It is no wonder that in the decades after its premiere ZOOM became a touchstone of the 1970s for many people, and that it inspired a second-generation ZOOM (1999-2005). The show’s impact was significant. If the United States in the 1970s was not a place of perfect equality, it was one in which ZOOM freed children to imagine their own lives in more creative, inclusive and far-reaching ways.
1Letter from J. B., Maine, n.d.; letter from M. M., Michigan; Letter from boy, 9 January 1972. All letters in WGBH archive, Boston, Massachusetts, hereafter cited WGBH. Letters are reproduced with their original spelling intact.
3Public Health Service, Television and Growing Up: The Impact of Televised Violence. Report to the Surgeon General, United States Public Health Service, 1971, pp. 52, 60. On the history of controversy about children and television, see, for example, Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago: U. of Chicago, 1992); Stephen Kline, Out of the Garden: Toys, TV, and Children’s Culture in the Age of Marketing (London: Verso: 1993); Lynn Spigel, Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001).
4On the early history of Sesame Street, see Joan Cooney, “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education,” Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1966); Joan Cooney and Linda Gottlieb, “Television for Preschool Children: A Proposal” (New York: Carnegie Corporation of New York, 1968); Samuel Ball and Gerry Ann Bogatz, The First Year of Sesame Street: An Evaluation (Princeton: Educational Testing Service, 1970); Walter Goodman, “Is Sesame Street Really All That Good?” Redbook 141 (October 1973), 98; Gerald S. Lesser, Children and Television: Lessons From Sesame Street (New York: Random House, 1974); Richard Polsky, Getting to Sesame Street: Origins of the Children’s Television Workshop (New York: Praeger, 1974); Robert W. Morrow, Sesame Street and the Reform of Children’s Television (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2006); and Jennifer Mandel, “The Production of a Beloved Community: Sesame Street’s Answer to America’s Inequalities” Journal of American Culture 29, no. 1 (2006), 3-13.
5The viewer numbers cited here appear in “Effectiveness of ‘The Electric Company,’” Intellect 102, no. 2355 (Feb. 1974), 284. More conservative estimates appear in Walter J. Podrazik, “The Best of the Electric Company” (Sesame Workshop, 2006), 15. Podrazik estimates that about seventy percent of all large urban schools in the nation offered the show, including over one in four elementary schools across the nation, and that two million children watched the show at school.
7 “What is ZOOM?” 2 Sept. 1971, WGBH. After Christopher Sarson left ZOOM, Jim Crum, Austin Hoyt and Terri Payne Francis each served in turn as the program’s executive director. 8Naeemah Clark, “The Birth of an Advocacy Group: The First Six Years of Action for Children’s Television” Journalism History 30, no. 2 (Summer 2004), 67. On ACT, see Evelyn Sarson, ed., Action for Children’s Television: The First National Symposium on the Effect on Children of Television Programming and Advertising (New York: Avon Books, 1971); Cecil Smith, “Zooming In on Zoom Watchers” Los Angeles Times 10 Feb. 1972, 20; “News,” Library Journal 99 (15 May 1974), 1426; William F. Fore, “FCC Cops Out on Children’s TV” Christian Century 91 (20 November 1974): 1084-5; Heather Hendershot, Action for (and against) Children's Television: "Militant Mothers" and the Tactics of Television Reform in Hendershot, Saturday Morning Censors: Television Regulation before the V-Chip (Durham: Duke U. Press, 1998), 61-94. A similar west coast parental advocacy group, Committee on Children’s Television, was founded in San Francisco and began publishing reports on local television shows by 1971.
10On the reception of ZOOM, see Cyclops, “Use at last for 12-year-old minds” Life 72 (January 28, 1972): 18 and Cecil Smith, “Zooming In on Zoom Watchers” Los Angeles Times 10 Feb. 1972, 20. On the parental reception, see letter from mother, 14 January 1979, and letter from mother, 17 April 1978, WGBH.
11On the transition to PBS, see Norman S. Morris, Television’s Child (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1971), 67-71; Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, Public Television: A Program for Action (New York: Bantam, 1967); David Croteau, William Hoynes and Kevin M. Carragee, “The Political Diversity of Public Television: Polysemy, the Public Sphere, and the Conservative Critique of PBS” Journalism & Mass Communication 157 (June 1996), 3; R. Stephen Craig, “Noncommercial Television” in Margaret A. Blanchard, ed., History of the Mass Media in the United States: An Encyclopedia (New York: Routledge, 1998), 473-6. On Nixon and the politics of PBS, see, for example, John Carmody, “A Money Message for the Media: PBS Tightens its Belt” Washington Post 17 July 1972, B1.
18Folder 206; “Other elements not in that description”; Folder 233; document dated 12/5/72, WGBH. It is likely that producers heard of Mei Ling Lee of Plainfield, New Jersey, for example, when an article about her was published in the New York Times in 1973. See Carol Sperber, “Only 10, She’s Hostess and Interpreter at Parents’ Restaurant” New York Times 26 April 1973, 50. Lee subsequently appeared as a ZOOMguest in episode 311.
25For those who never watched ZOOM, Fannee Doollee liked words with double letters. ZOOM expanded its world through several books (WGBH Educational Foundation, The ZOOM catalog: Riddles, Jokes, Stories, Songs, Games, Plays, Puzzles, Poems, Crafts, Art, Guest Interviews (New York: Random House, 1972) and Bernice Chesler, Do a Zoom Do (New York, Little Brown & Co, 1975)) as well as the record album Come on and ZOOM, A&M Records, 1974. On the popularity of jacks, see “Raising Children in Modern America” (1975 publicity kit) (1976-77 season), WGBH.