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Television Shows For Children

As early as 1931, television's first screen images were projected with primarily a young audience in mind. Puppeteer Bernard H. Paul was the first to bring his company of marionettes to life over experimental stations such as W3XK in Wheaton, Maryland. Eight years later, another young puppeteer by the name of Burr Tillstrom displayed a soon-to-befamiliar bulb-nosed hand puppet over the television airwaves of the 1939 World's Fair.

It was not until 1947, however, that the new medium realized the great potential in children's television programs. Its first big success came over the old Dumont network, on station WABD, New York City. "Big Brother" Bob Emery became the first children's show host in a 30-minute weekday series of fun, games, and prizes entitled "Small Fry Club." Its success led the way for future shows of its kind.

Before long, the term children's television became associated with the three larger broadcasting companies, NBC, CBS, and ABC, with each featuring its own variety of puppets and "kindly old uncle" figures, as well as anything available that might appeal to young children. This usually meant comedy, light action drama, and of course animation of all types. Unlike today, the early children's programs were shown during the evening hours, since the average broadcast day lasted only a few hours and concluded no later than 7:00 P.M. Before long, however, Saturday mornings became a haven for live performances, dull government documentaries, and half-hour edited versions of Hollywood's "B" Western movies.

The American Broadcasting Company first aired Saturday morning Television shows for children on August 19, 1950. Before long the NBC network led the children's ratings with some of the most popular shows in the genre. Puppet shows "Howdy Doody" and "Kukla, Fran, and Ollie" ruled their daily time slots, while Western hero Bill ("Hopalong Cassidy") Boyd acquired the television rights to his feature films, which in turn led to an additional 52 episodes being made especially for television.

Then CBS and ABC came from behind, with two of the most popular shows of all time premiering the same day. Each altered the course of children's daily programming. "Captain Kangaroo" premiered October 8, 1955, on CBS, just hours before "The Mickey Mouse Club" gave ABC the boost it needed to dethrone NBC's top-rated "Howdy Doody Show." The following year Howdy and all his Doody-Ville friends moved to Saturday mornings where they remained throughout the show's run.

During this period, kids' cereal and candy manufacturers realized the great influence that these early shows had on their viewers. So, they bought air time to sponsor some of the most popular of the new shows, despite outcries from teachers, parents, and other pressure groups. Wanting to satisfy both the child and the parent, producers began to develop other shows, like "Captain Kangaroo," which contained some elements of information and education. Eventually programs such as PBS's "Sesame Street" and CBS's "Fat Albert" would meet the standards of each group. For baby boomers, the shows were influential. Most today still remember these early programs.

There were so many different types of shows. "Howdy Doody," "Superman," "Soupy Sales," and "Huckleberry Hound" were equally enjoyable, although each was different from the others. Although most of the shows were uncomplicated in structure, it was usually easy to see why some were more popular than others. Live performers such as Buffalo Bob Smith, Bob Keeshan, and Pinky Lee, playing friendly video uncles, served as role models who helped to shape children's lives. Their shows and others like them had value as terrific entertainment in a tiny industry that was soon to become a giant. Today, many producers of children's shows have been criticized time and again by advocacy groups for stifling creativity with either violent or toy-related animation. Nevertheless, there are still a few good shows. And of course there is the Public Broadcasting System, which has served as the greatest alternative to network children's programming since the late 1960s.

Cartoons are without a doubt the most durable, if not the most profitable, of the children's programs. Throughout the years animated shows of all types have survived while the competition has given up. The catchy tunes, violent action, and rapid-fire, brightly colored images have created a successful children's product for over four decades.

Typically in the very early years of television cartoons were hosted by live performers who interrupted with a variety of jokes and skits; the late 1950s, though, gave birth to the "whole cartoon series," where even the host (if any) appeared in animated form.

In the mid-1960s, while parents began complaining about all the animated violence, something else was happening: Toys began replacing cereal and candy as the biggest selling commodity in the children's tele vision commercial. Soon after the introduction of Mattel's popular Barbie doll, such favorite action figurines and comic book heroes as GI Joe and Spiderman moved from department store shelves to the video screen of children's bedrooms, demonstrating that quality and popularity are not necessarily linked when it comes to children's television.

Many of today's best cartoons are still those that have stood the test of time. On any station today can be found the creations of such animators as Paul Terry (Terrytoon Productions), William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, Jay Ward and director Bill Scott, Fritz Freleng and David DePatie, as well as the multitalented artists and producers of the Warner Brothers Studios.

Magicians, clowns, and acrobats have unfortunately seen their day on weekly children's series. During the early years, however, network television competed for the right to entertain millions of youngsters with all types of programs involving three-ring circuses, lavishly dressed illusionists, trained animals, and miniskirted baton twirlers, all giving their best to entertain living rooms full of admiring young viewers and their mothers and fathers. Although these programs were similar to one another, each had some distinction that set it apart from the rest.

Many of these shows have been lost forever because they were onetime live performances. With television becoming more sophisticated, circus and magic shows were soon passed by, and fantasy took the place of variety as most children began to prefer animated talking animals to real ones.

During television's infancy, producers found children's comedy the most suitable choice to fill any programming gaps. Knowing that kids would laugh at almost anything funny, they scheduled theatrical shorts and situation comedy reruns. Although shows such as "Gilligan's Island," "Leave It to Beaver," and "The Munsters" were not originally meant for the children's hour, each has remained extremely popular in syndication with generations of new audiences. It was decided in the 1970s that perhaps a new set of situation comedies - this time tailor-made for a Saturday morning children's audience - could enjoy the success of original sitcoms. The results, however, proved that this was a mistake. While kids continued to watch shows like "The Brady Bunch" on weekdays, newer ones such as "The Ghost Busters" and "Far Out Space Nuts" were no match for their competition - the Saturday morning cartoons.

Programs of a spirited nature have not always been limited to the adult world. At one time children danced, named that tune, ran around huge game boards, and did just as many silly things as adults still do today for money and prizes. As a matter of fact, several of today's best-known game show hosts started out in juvenile versions of such once popular adult games as "Beat the Clock" and "Video Village." At one time the networks were jammed with young contestants of all types trying desperately to reach the finish, ring the buzzer, or give the correct name of a capital city before their eager opponents did. Meanwhile, in the mid-1950s, another type of activity show developed which provided teenagers with the latest in songs, dances, and fashions, interests that remain constant even today. Presently, only a few cable stations have made the attempt to recapture some of the fun and frolics often involved in shows of this kind. It is to be hoped that we have not seen the last of them.

PBS has without a doubt done the finest job of educating while entertaining young children. But shows of an informative nature have been in existence in one form or another ever since television began. Although many of the early shows meant well, most failed in their efforts to attract attention, because of their straightforward manner.

Informative shows have appeared in all forms, from hosts and news to puppets and instructional cartoons. Because of these different styles, children have been able to maintain a balance between shows they like to watch and those they should watch. Over the years children have learned through television about arts, science, religion, and general information about the world. For those who grew up watching them, many of these shows became a primary source of information about a better life.

Many years before Pee Wee Herman, television managed to maintain an equal balance of programs with live and animated characters. Kindly adults once appeared on television in all varieties, from elderly uncles and clowns, to grown-up kids and Mouseketeers. These friendly, funny people with the sunshine smiles became as much a part of early television as black and white and the 15-inch screen. Some became enormously popular with time. Year after year they contributed a talent to meet the demands of a eager young public. Some sang songs, others introduced stories, while a few relied on puppets and off-beat characters. But the concept was essentially always the same: a familiar relationship based on distinctive styles and talents. Today these shows are only a memory.

Puppet characters have always made a major contribution to children's television. Even today, part of the industry still depends upon "Muppets," puppets, and costumed adults to improve the quality of children's programming. At one time, however, these types of shows were the center stage of children's programming. Even the commercials were filled with popular wooden characters who easily convinced youngsters that "Nestle's makes the very best" or "The best candy on earth comes from Mars."

Though most of these shows depended on a live host, in many instances the puppets themselves became extremely popular. The producers of these shows were well aware that puppets were indeed the quickest if not the easiest way to get the attention of most children. Perhaps that explains why puppet characters are more prevalent today in educational shows than in any other type.

Most of the information in this section is taken from Jeffery Davis'. Children's Television, 1947-1990: Over 200 Series, Game and Variety Shows, Cartoons, Educational Programs, and Specials. McFarland & Company, Inc, Jefferson, NC. 1995.


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