I really feel for kids these days. Sure, they have instant access to the World Wide Web at home, at school, on the go and just about wherever they go. There are 800 cable or satellite channels for any kind of programming their heart desires, and today’s video games are more interactive, captivating and realistic than ever before.
But from what I’ve seen, the actual value of what kids are taking in is a little disheartening, especially when it comes to TV. It seems that most of the people in charge of children’s programming think very poorly of their audiences, producing what seems to be a very high amount of mindless entertainment (looking at you there, SpongeBob). Either that, or they’re pushing the pop flavor of the month, from Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers to Big Time Rush and Selena Gomez — in other words, exactly the same show we’ve seen a billion times before, only with even more background noise.
Now, don’t get me wrong; growing up, I loved plenty of those kinds of shows growing up (Power Rangers, Pokemon, Rocko’s Modern Life …). But always there to balance those out were the more educational shows out there, the ones that, while their main purpose was to inform and expand knowledge, did a great job at being straight-up entertaining, too. And aside from Dora the Explorer, how many shows can you name doing that anymore?
The leader of this group was PBS. That’s right, forget Masterpiece Theatre and Nova; the public TV station had a great cache of child-geared shows back in the day. Some of the classics are still going strong, but most have faded into obscurity and nostalgia. So for those of you who think I’m a lunatic or who want to sit back and reminisce, I give you my top 5 PBS shows from the ’90s. Feel free to share your thoughts and other shows left off the list below!
Honorable mentions: Shining Time Station (1989-1993), Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1970-2001). I remember little from my kindergarten days, but chief among them were these two shows, teaching me the importance of friendship. And who can forget Fred Rogers and his iconic sweater, or Ringo Starr and George Carlin as Conductors for Thomas the Tank Engine?
5. Sesame Street (1970-present). This was probably the first TV show we all remember watching. Jim Henson’s creations always found just the right balance of fun, goofiness and education. It’s the range of learning that makes this show stand out most; it’s got to have a deep well of information for being on so long (I know I learned a good amount of Spanish from some of the songs). The good news is the show continues to be relevant in the culture, pulling in popular acts like Katy Perry and OK Go. And did I mention this is the kids’ show that’s not afraid to tackle AIDS.
4. Reading Rainbow (1983-2006). Before he rocked the Star Trek universe, LeVar Burton helped teach kids across the country the awesomeness of books. This show was a staple in my elementary school, and it was in large part because of Burton — who was already a respected actor thanks to his role in Roots. He cared enough to reach out to kids, and boy, it did pay off. However, in the world of TV based around books, he will always be second-best to …
3. Wishbone (1995-1998). Maybe the best mix of education and ongoing story we’ll ever see. This show had everything, from a decent group of friends to wonderful interpretations of classics from Homer to Mary Shelley. Oh, and it had the coolest dog on TV.
2. Bill Nye the Science Guy (1993-1998). Proving once and for all that science is cool, I give you Bill Nye. The man just knows how to talk technically to kids, and his show was brilliant. The only program teachers at my school showed as much as the legendary School House Rock was Bill Nye, and when a man has this much fun teaching science and the universe to kids, why wouldn’t he get a ton of play time? (Plus, he wears a bow tie. And bow ties are cool.)
1. Carmen Sandiego (1991-1998). Game shows are tough to pull off, especially when kids are involved. But Carmen Sandiego was about more than just trivia. It gave us a great central character (and a villain, no less) with a one-of-a-kind look. It gave us not one, but TWO awesome game shows (Where in the World from ’91 to ’95 and Where in Time ’96 to ’98), not to mention the cartoon. It gave us a pretty fantastic theme song (and an introduction to a cappella for many). And, best of all, it provided education and entertainment on a wide variety of subjects through several media, namely the terrific computer game series that I never got tired of playing.