Roaring Start

A family of lions is teaching youngsters how to read on PBS, following the tradition of 'Sesame Street.'

March 29, 2001|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

If you asked most television critics to name the most intelligent and culturally important television series of the last 10 years, they would probably pick HBO's "The Sopranos."

But, as terrific as "The Sopranos" is, there's another series just as smart in its own right that's seen each week by a larger audience - a series with the potential to have an even greater effect on our national culture.

This one, too, features a family living in an East Coast city. Instead of a crime family in New Jersey, though, this one has a family of lions living in a library full of books that come to life and colorful characters that zoom in and out of the books.

I'm talking about PBS' award-winning "Between the Lions," the series that proved last year in its first season that television can help teach children to read. To many who believe television steals children away from books, that's surely a revolutionary idea.

But that's what a University of Kansas study found: Kindergartners who watched "Between the Lions" raised their reading test scores by almost 40 percent more than those children who did not last year. And not only was it good for them, the kids liked it, with 95 percent in the study rating it among their favorite shows. The show is aimed at 4- to 7-year-olds.

Educators are also giving the series thumbs-up reviews, led by an endorsement from the National Education Association.

"The National Education Association doesn't often recommend that children watch television. But, in tandem with classroom teachers, this extraordinary PBS series will help many beginning readers master key skills that are essential to learning to read," said Bob Chase, president of the NEA.

"Between the Lions" returns to the public airwaves on Monday with 25 new episodes (weekdays at 11 a.m. on MPT, Channels 22 and 67, and 3 p.m. on WETA, Channel 26). In connection with the season premiere, this week is filled with events in and around the Baltimore area ranging from a Million Book March arriving at 10:45 a.m. today at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, to a reading at the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore at 2 p.m. tomorrow with co-creator and executive producer Christopher Cerf and puppet lions from the show. Saturday, Cerf and members of the cast will be at the White Marsh Mall.

If you want to know how and why such a groundbreaking show found its way into American living rooms, there is no one better to ask than Cerf, perhaps best known as one of the satirists who helped launch National Lampoon or as current chairman of Random House's Modern Library.

Having fun

In some ways, Cerf and a handful of colleagues had been developing "Between the Lions" for more than 30 years before its debut last March, and the show bears not just their commitment to using television as a tool of enlightenment, but also their irreverent, often brilliant, take on popular culture.

"On one level you could say `Between the Lions' is simply a show aimed at helping children learn to read. That is certainly the core idea, and it is just that simple on one level," Cerf said this week from his office in New York.

"But, at the risk of telling a more complicated story, there is more to it than that in terms of how the show came to be and the ideas behind it. A certain group of us have worked together in various combinations for a lot of our lives starting with `Sesame Street.' And we all felt that the original `Sesame Street' idea, which came out of the '60s, was a wonderful idea that worked.

"Norman Stiles [former `Sesame Street' head writer who now is co-executive producer and head writer for "Between the Lions"] and I actually used to have dinner ever Friday night at a restaurant here in New York. And we'd have a couple of martinis or something and we'd say, "You know, we should take what `Sesame Street' did and do it for reading," Cerf said, giving his speech a two-martini slur.

The "Sesame Street" idea is a big one with lots of parts. While its urban setting and ethnically diverse cast are often noted as landmark elements, what made the series truly revolutionary when it debuted in 1968 was the way it conceived of and addressed its pre-school audience as future citizens rather than potential consumers.

It set out to teach the alphabet and numbers to all children, but especially those from disadvantaged homes. Virtually everything that had come before - including "Ding Dong School" and the Baltimore-based "Romper Room" - to one degree or another taught children to be consumers either directly through advertisements for toys or through invitations to join clubs that used such doo-dads as "decoder rings," which could only be found in certain cereal boxes.

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