Fifty years ago, GBH Kids launched the experimental ZOOM, which sparked decades of innovation and entertainment in children's media.
Then 25 years ago, Arthur, the animated aardvark, came into our lives, charming children and adults alike while taking on important and sensitive topics. The debut of Molly of Denali two years ago built on that creative ethos, establishing another milestone as the first nationally distributed children’s show to feature an Alaska Native as the lead character.
“All three projects demonstrate our long-standing commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion,” said Terry Fitzpatrick, vice president of children’s media and education. “ZOOM was for kids and by kids and brought in topics we weren’t seeing on television 50 years ago,” he said. “Arthur expanded on that by representing a diverse range of personalities and interests as well as addressing a range of issues not usually seen on kids’ shows—such as autism, asthma and bullying.”
The making of Molly of Denali not only delivers distinctive Native stories, but it also prompted a revolution in the GBH Kids production process that will endure for years to come, he said. “Molly of Denali was created with GBH producers working shoulder to shoulder with Alaska Native colleagues at every step,” he said. “That innovation really speaks to our commitment to diversity and inclusion.”
ZOOM’s theme song, “Who are you?/ What do you do?/How are you?/Let’s hear from you!/We need you!” captured the series’ infectious interactivity. As the program shined a light on kids’ diverse backgrounds, personalities and abilities, it affirmed a sense of shared capability and community. With its arts and crafts, jokes and skits, it became a sensation, one of the nation’s most successful noncommercial children’s series. In one week alone, more than 20,000 fan letters poured in. ZOOM ran for six seasons, with a second-generation remake airing from 1999 to 2005.
ZOOM’s action-packed vibe and inclusivity helped shape the next generation of programs. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? and Where in Time…? game shows entertained as they addressed geographic literacy and history education. Between the Lions, the first television show to teach reading skills, showed dramatic results among children in rural, diverse and under-resourced communities.
The first daily animated series on PBS, Arthur debuted in 1996, building a sense of connection and acceptance and presenting issues of health and emotional well-being with kindness and humor.
“We tried to think about all the kids in our audience,” said Carol Greenwald, GBH Kids executive producer and creative advisor, who originated the series. “We brought in a panel of advisors, and we asked, ‘how can we make this show meet the needs of a very diverse audience?’”
Based on the Arthur character in Marc Brown’s books, the program thrived with the support of the author, PBS and GBH’s Brigid Sullivan, then vice president for children’s media and educational programming. Today, Arthur has the largest Facebook fan base of any PBS Kids series. “Arthur was pretty much an instant hit,” said Greenwald. “Our ratings climbed dramatically even in the first month.” It went on to become the longest running kids animated series in history.
The broadcast show was only the beginning—digital games, puzzles and curricula followed, deepening kids’ engagement and amplifying the stories and lessons. “With all of our programs, we want to use the power of television and digital platforms to extend and deepen the educational impact of our content,” said Fitzpatrick. “In those early years, we really wanted to make children’s television more stimulating, to highlight diversity and to communicate interesting and creative ideas,” he said.
With that compass, Molly of Denali was a natural fit. “Molly began with the idea of creating a show based on the joy children find in ‘playing store,’” said Executive Producer Dorothea Gillim. “It evolved into a story of kids and community—an authentic reflection of life in Alaska, with an informational text curriculum to support it.” Two studies last year showed that after only nine weeks of access to Molly of Denali, children’s ability to solve real-world problems improved.
For Yatibaey Evans, creative producer of the series, the program delivers a profound message: “If we can help educate kids from a young age to be open-minded and accepting of diverse communities, cultures and people, they’ll grow up to be incredible leaders who engage with people of all backgrounds.”