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Encore: 50 years ago, 'The Electric Company' used comedy to help kids' reading skills

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

NPR is celebrating 50 years on the air, so we're taking a look back at the moments, news, albums and TV shows that shaped the year 1971.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ELECTRIC COMPANY THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) We're gonna turn it on. We're gonna bring you the power. We're gonna light up the dark of night like the brightest day in a whole new way.

CORNISH: Like "The Electric Company." Brought to you by the producers of "Sesame Street," it used animation, music and sketch comedy to teach kids to read. The cast included Rita Moreno and a then-unknown Morgan Freeman. The show won two Emmys and aired on more than 250 public TV stations. So why didn't "The Electric Company" endure for as long as "Sesame Street" did? Well, NPR's Elizabeth Blair went to find out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ELIZABETH BLAIR: Before cable, before the internet and streaming, before "Barney," "Dora" and "Super Why!," there was Millie the Helper, played by Rita Moreno.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELECTRIC COMPANY")

RITA MORENO: (As Millie the Helper) Hey, you guys.

BLAIR: There was Easy Reader, played by Morgan Freeman.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELECTRIC COMPANY")

MORGAN FREEMAN: (As Easy Reader) Whenever you hear the E sound, why, you just think of me.

BLAIR: "The Electric Company's" guest stars included Zero Mostel, Gene Wilder and Joan Rivers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELECTRIC COMPANY")

JOAN RIVERS: The Adventures of Letterman.

Wait, what's that villain doing? He's changing the M in money to an H, turning money into honey.

BLAIR: "The Electric Company's" target audience was elementary school students who were too old for "Sesame Street" but still needed help learning to read. According to a report by the Children's Television Workshop, government estimates show that illiteracy was a problem for as many as 1 out of 10 Americans and that millions more were described as functional illiterates. Funders of "The Electric Company" included the U.S. Office of Education. At the time, President Nixon's Right to Read program sought to achieve universal literacy in the 1970s.

SAMUEL GIBBON: What we needed to worry about were the people who were falling behind.

BLAIR: TV writer and producer Samuel Gibbon was pulled off his job on "Sesame Street" to oversee "The Electric Company."

GIBBON: And if you're falling behind in the second and third grade, your prognosis is not wonderful. So we tried to correct that problem at its origins.

BLAIR: Gibbon and a team of TV writers and producers, reading experts and other academic advisers spent 18 months doing research and developing the show before it went on the air. These days, that's business as usual for educational TV shows. But back in 1971, this was new.

BARBARA FOWLES: I was studying developmental psycholinguistics - how language develops in children and how that relates to other cognitive variables as they're developing.

BLAIR: Barbara Fowles was on the research side of "The Electric Company."

FOWLES: We did a lot of phonics - you know, teaching the sounds of the letters and the relationship between the printed letter and the sound.

BLAIR: One regular segment showed the silhouettes of two faces looking at each other. As they sound out the beginning and end of each word, the letters float out of their mouths and form the word in the middle of the screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELECTRIC COMPANY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) L.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Ip.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters) Lip.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) L.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Id.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters) Lid.

BLAIR: Comedy sketches helped kids learn to decode words and see patterns.

GIBBON: We thought of it as a comedy show that tried to teach.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELECTRIC COMPANY")

JUDY GRAUBART: (As character) Oh, boy. I bet you it's a Crank call. Hello?

JIMMY BOYD: (As J. Arthur Crank) Crank here.

GRAUBART: (As character) It is a Crank call.

BLAIR: Here are cast members Judy Graubart and Jimmy Boyd doing a bit about the silent E.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELECTRIC COMPANY")

BOYD: (As J. Arthur Crank) Well, I understand rob OK.

GRAUBART: (As character) Yeah?

BOYD: (As J. Arthur Crank) But when you put the E on the end...

GRAUBART: (As character) Yeah?

BOYD: (As J. Arthur Crank) ...It ought to be Rob-ee (ph).

GRAUBART: (As character) Oh, no, no. You don't understand. See, the E on the end is silent.

BOYD: (As J. Arthur Crank) Why is it silent?

GRAUBART: (As character) Well, it just is, Crank.

BOYD: (As J. Arthur Crank) Well, tell it to speak up, will you? It's making me nervous.

BLAIR: A few months after "The Electric Company" first went on the air, NPR's Susan Stamberg interviewed students who'd been watching the show. This is Lynette Murray of Washington, D.C., who was 12 years old at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

LYNETTE MURRAY: One thing surprised me, that the way they take the E off the word and it 'comes to another word. And...

SUSAN STAMBERG: Give an example.

LYNETTE: Like, for ride - and you can take the E off that, and the word becomes rid. That makes the I long. And then take the E off and it 'comes short.

BLAIR: But 11-year-old Sherri Pressley told NPR she had some trouble keeping up.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

SHERRI PRESSLEY: I enjoy it, but it's so fast that I hardly have time to think over the sentence.

BLAIR: Barbara Fowle says there was often tension between the reading experts and the comedy writers over things like wordplay. Take the character Fargo North.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE ELECTRIC COMPANY")

SKIP HINNANT: (As Fargo North) Fargo North, decoder - messages decoded while you wait.

FOWLES: You know, kids don't know Fargo, N.D. So they don't think it's funny. They don't get it.

BLAIR: "The Electric Company" is often referred to as an experiment. And by most accounts, working on the show was not easy. One writer joked that being asked to do two funny minutes on the consonant blend fl was a nightmare. And researchers like Barbara Fowles had to push back against the TV haters.

FOWLES: Most people thought it was anathema to try to use television to teach kids to read - you know, that television and reading were diametrically opposed. And teachers really thought television was horrible.

BLAIR: And yet, in the early 1970s, "The Electric Company" was on more than 250 stations. Within two months of its premiere, the show was being used in classrooms in some 18,000 elementary schools. But in 1977, the show was canceled. Samuel Gibbon says funding was limited. And the Children's Television Workshop had to make a choice.

GIBBON: And the question was, which of the programs that we did - "Sesame Street" and "The Electric Company" - could produce revenue for the Children's Television Workshop that would keep it in business.

BLAIR: And guess which show won?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As Elmo, singing) La, la, la, la, la, la, la, la, Elmo's World.

BLAIR: "The Electric Company's" cast and crew went their separate ways. Morgan Freeman went on to become the voice of God. Bill Cosby would run into serious legal troubles. The comedy writers went on to work on TV shows like "MASH" and "Everybody Loves Raymond." Rita Moreno recently reflected on the experience in an interview with Terry Gross of WHYY's Fresh Air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MORENO: I have lots of friends from that time in my life. I always saw "The Electric Company" as community service on my part. And I really worked very, very hard. But it was absolutely worth it. It was such a wonderful, wonderful experiment.

BLAIR: An experiment that went on to inform dozens of educational shows that came after it - reruns, a reboot and a DVD release continued into the 2000s. But for the most part, "The Electric Company" ran out of juice. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE ELECTRIC COMPANY THEME")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) On "The Electric Company." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.