ZOOM’s Triumphant Return
Written by Keith Wagner | Posted by: Anonymous
When I moved to Boston several years ago, my new address was a homecoming of sorts, and whenever I gave it to friends, they would spontaneously burst into song. They would also start babbling at me in Ubbi Dubbi, which I could never translate. See, I had moved into the country’s first singable zip code, in Boston, Massachusetts ("Ohhh-two-ooone three-fouuuur!"), home to public television’s WGBH and birthplace of ZOOM, the wildly popular (and Emmy Award winning) children’s television series which ran from 1972 to 1978.
In 1999, following a 20-year hiatus, ZOOM returned to the public airwaves with contemporary visual appeal and a companion web site, but at heart it’s still the same program that made it such a hit in the ’70s: a show for kids, by kids, starring kids. Now gearing up for a second season (premiering on Tuesday, January 4, 2000) and conducting an open casting call on January 8 for a third season, ZOOM has redefined a tremendously popular slice of children’s educational programming.
"We wanted to keep the heart of the old show, but update it and add some new elements," says executive producer Kate Taylor. Like the original, the new ZOOM is a 30-minute program featuring seven Boston-area kids ("ZOOMers," in ZOOM parlance), just being themselves in a variety of situations. Also like the original, each show is made up entirely of ideas submitted by the home ZOOMer audience.
Talk about variety. Over the course of one episode the ZOOMers run across an immense landscape of projects and activities. The Q&A-styled ZOOMzup (as in "whassup?") asks kids such pressing questions as "what’s the best trip you’ve ever taken?" One of the ZOOMsci (as in "science") experiments challenges kids to watch a bird feeder and then send in their observations. ZOOMguests present their peculiar interests and hobbies, from hot-air ballooning to dog grooming, for ZOOMers to discover. You’ll grimace at the ZOOM jokes (corny ones, delivered a la "Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in"), and be amazed by the sophistication of the ZOOMvids made by viewers (one 13-year-old videographer writes and shoots her own plays, based on Aesop’s fables and edited in-camera). ZOOM gives kids a little bit of everything, all in a half hour. It’s a carefully balanced combination: the program moves quickly, yet each short segment is thorough, comprehensive, and complete unto itself.
While the content of the program is essentially the same as that of the ’70s, visually, ZOOM has changed to keep up with the times. The sets are now a riot of bright, electric neons. And gone are the matching broad-striped rugby shirts; today’s ZOOMers wear jeans, matching sneakers, and a mix of striped sweaters and t-shirts in complimentary blues, greens, and oranges. They’re similar, yet different; part of a team, but not identical.
Before computers and instant communication came into vogue, before "interactive" became the catchword du jour, ZOOM boldly called itself an interactive children’s program. A strange claim for a unidirectional medium like television, but Taylor describes ZOOM as "a call to action." "ZOOM is a show that is literally asking you over and over and over again to do something," says Taylor. Not a surprising legacy for a show inspired by a British TV program entitled "Why Don’t You Turn Off the TV and Do Something Less Boring?"
For a show that depends on the input of its audience, harnessing the potential of the Web was a no-brainer. And has it ever paid off: the Web has driven the interactivity of ZOOM through the roof. During the ’70s, ZOOM often generated more than 10,000 letters a week; today, ZOOM receives at least 10,000 emails a week (and even more during the summer), in addition to between 4,000 and 8,000 letters via snail mail. Every correspondence is responded to with a copy of ZOOMerang, a booklet that provides kids with do-at-home ZOOM projects.
"At heart, ZOOM is a literacy show," says Taylor, "because it’s asking you to write, either by your pen or by your keyboard, and it’s asking kids to read by sending them ZOOMerang." (Taylor knows whereof she speaks–she served as the contributions editor for the original series, responsible for those 10,000+ pieces of mail that inundated the show each week.)
ZOOMerang is just one part of the show’s interactive cycle. "With the Web, there’s a whole different level of interaction," says Taylor. Kids watch the show, log onto the Web site for more information, log off to perform an activity, then log back on to report their results, which make their way onto the show in one way or another.
In addition to putting kids back in touch with language, ZOOM has added science and math to round out its curriculum. Wrestling educational principles from material provided by the 6-to-13 demographic might seem a daunting task, but ZOOM works closely with educators (including advisors from the National Science Foundation, which helps underwrite the program) and advisors versed in child development. Rather than stressing strict scientific principles, ZOOM aims to establish what Taylor calls "habits of mind," the behaviors and mind-set necessary for learning. "We don’t mind if a kid’s hypothesis is wrong," she says; sometimes you learn more from an experiment that doesn’t work than from one that does.
What made now the right time to bring ZOOM back? It didn’t just come out of the blue, says Taylor. "The ZOOM question" came up every so often around WGBH, but four years ago it was nudged decisively into the limelight. During a children’s programming retreat, the staff was discussing the development of a new show. "The things we liked about it were very ZOOM-like, and the things we didn’t like were very un-ZOOM-like," says Taylor. But no one had done anything remotely like ZOOM in the intervening years–"TV had moved away from what ZOOM was," says Taylor, with slick production values and older hosts pretending to be teens–and the staff had to wonder why that was.
To test the waters (and to see if ZOOM was, in Taylor’s words, "too dorky for today’s kids"), they re-ran episodes of the original show, asking the audience if they thought a new version was a good idea. The response was overwhelming–kids loved it, and flooded the station with ideas for the new ZOOM pilot.
It’s amazing that an idea more than 20 years old can return to the air virtually unchanged. Taylor, however, isn’t surprised. "Kids want to be kids," she says. They want to experiment, play, be creative. Through ZOOM, kids have proven themselves to be the same regardless of when they’re growing up. The most necessary change in the program has nothing to do with content, but is a sad reflection of the times we live in: "We don’t hand out kids’ last names on the air anymore–it’s not a safe world," says Taylor.
But that’s not what ZOOM is about. It’s about allowing kids to be creative, encouraging them to connect with a community, and providing them with a forum to share their thoughts, ideas, and hopes with that community. ZOOM is a wonderful expression of the public airwaves at work, a show created, scene by scene, by the audience it’s intended to engage. In a time when reality-based programming gluts the airwaves, ZOOM is the ultimate expression of reality–kids doing those things they do (including a lot of laughing), and providing a good example for others to follow in the process.
ZOOM airs in Boston seven days a week on WGBH Channel 2. To get a feel for the '90s interpretation of interactive, check out the ZOOM Web site at www.pbs.org/zoom. And if you've got a kid (or are a kid) who would be the prefect ZOOMer, open auditions for the Season Three cast will take place at the WGBH studios on Saturday, January 8, 2000. Check out this month's NewEnglandFilm.com classified section for more details, or call ZOOM at 617-3002134.