easy reader

Seems that there’s some renewed interest in my The Electric Company (TEC) website, the one over which Sesame Workshop sent me a C&D letter. I’ve never made my thoughts public on the matter until now. If Sesame Workshop was keen to reclaim their copyrights on the material I had there for commercial distribution, so be it; I would understand if a DVD release of previous material was forthcoming. However it’s not available on DVD, and the C&D letter I received startled me — it stated something about “brand dilution.” (I will try and find the letter and post an excerpt here.)

Maybe CTW/Sesame Workshop is embarrassed by their former efforts on a children’s program with extremely low production values and a set that looks like it was designed by someone on LSD. Perhaps the educational value of those programs has decreased over time, and they are worried that today’s children would be negatively impacted by the offbeat programming. Maybe they don’t want to pollute their limited marketing stream with outdated ideas when they would much rather put effort into newer, potentially more lucrative projects.

In the end, though, this program forms part of the collective consciousness of millions upon millions of Americans, and at least some folks from other nations I’ve met remember the program. It helped them grow into the people they are today. I certainly wouldn’t have the love I have for funky music, analogue synthesis and graphics, and humorous little ditties without this program. And it did help me read — me, a child in the city with some disadvantages and a tumultuous family life — precisely the sort of child at whom the programming was targeted, according to various Teacher’s and Parents’ Guides for the program I have collected over the years.

Further, such programming is woefully absent on PBS these days. I know the team responsible for TEC went on to work on Square One TV (another fantastic program, focused on math) and then Between The Lions (still on limited circulation, and for the moment, acknowledged by PBS). Post-Sesame children’s television is a panoply of offerings, and Sesame Workshop may have decided to throw in the towel to other fields. Yet this is the area in which TEC excelled, and provided a positive, hip role model. An example: Morgan Freeman himself (under the guise of his Easy Reader character) would make references to Fred Rogers’ program and Sesame Street — he reads some ancient graffiti, an inside joke about how “Sir Lancelot loves Lady Elaine Fairchild.” This is the sort of subtle, intelligent humour that should be required reading for today’s generation of children lost on televised baby talk, programming that amounts to no more than bubblegum for the brain.

Sesame Workshop’s struggle to define themselves in the increasingly narrow field of educational television – in a world where PBS is under constant threat, where parents demand programming that pacifies, not instructs or challenges, and where commercialism is required to achieve the desired production values – may not permit the sort of experimental efforts TEC engaged in on a daily basis in the 1970s. Controversy is unavoidable, and I appreciate Sesame Workshop’s attempts to “walk the line” as carefully as possible. But to not even mention programs like TEC on their own website, and to actively persecute other websites offering no more than the sharing of memories and concepts, is tantamount to denying that the past ever occurred.

However, I argue that to remain relevant in the digital age, in a world where evolution of ideas is occurring with ever increasing rapidity, that experimentation must be increased. There should be tens more programs all being explored through digital means. Experimentation should be seen as a chance to learn more, and just like Fred Rogers used to tell me, failure isn’t something of which to be ashamed. It means you tried your best, and you learned from what you did. That such a simple concept is lost in the world of public television is, frankly, heartbreaking.

Why not bring TEC back? Why not release it on DVD, with two versions: an edited down version approved for today’s kids, and a full-length version for parents keen on nostalgia? Such things are easy to execute, and former actors on the program have stated publicly they’d be happy to volunteer their time to help frame the content. I’d buy the complete program set if available. Heck, why not consider relaunching the show? Popular cultural references in the media are at an all time high. Electronic techno music echoes the funky strains of the 1970s now more than ever. And while one can rightly attack some of the sappy songs one hears in childrens’ albums and television these days, the self-effacing humour of TEC never alienated nor condescended.

My archive was never intended to cut into Sesame Workshop’s profits, but to keep memories alive for this generation and share them with the coming ones. I could even argue for its restoration under “fair use” terms, but I really don’t feel like fighting a long, protracted battle with the powers that be.

Feel free to convince me otherwise. I have plenty of bandwidth.

4 thoughts on “easy reader

  1. Yeah, there’s at least one reference to a 4-disc Best of DVD set to be released on Amazon. And while that is a rumor, when distributors are putting up sales entries and tentatively taking pre-orders, probability tends to suggest that the rights holder does have some sort of active plans for the property.

    Although a real intellectual property lawyer could confirm or correct this, I believe a copyright does include the right to forbid display and distribution of the property, nor does it obligate them to continue making it available. I agree though that many materials deserve to be made available, and while I wasn’t that much of a fan of TEC, it was rather culturally significant, in the educational material world at least, and I did watch a lot of other similar shows like 3-2-1 Contact and Square One. Of course, it’s very often the case that there are many more great properties and products worth putting out than there is the necessary economic capability and organization. So choices are made and certain IPs get sat on for some indefinite amount of time. It’s a shame when companies fail to be able to keep various properties available that are clearly worthwhile though, especially given the amount of resources expended to release so much of the crap that is obviously out there..

  2. So it seems you’re both right, but still, a single “best of” DVD can hardly address the concerns I’ve raised about the educational viability of this material. Releasing it as a “nostalgia only” release greatly undermines the contribution this program made to the world. It’s a crying shame.

  3. Simply because a best of DVD is in the works doesn’t address the question, was Wohali within her rights as perscribed within the fair use clauses in the copyright laws?

    I have never actually watched TEC (slightly too old for it, and in the wrong country) but let me provide another example:

    Can wikipedia have an article on Mickey Mouse in it without requiring permission from Disney Inc. One can easily argue that Mickey Mouse is important culturely. An article on Mickey Mouse’s importance to the history of the U.S. is culturally relevent, so are the authors of the wikipedia within the fair use clause to include such an article? This is not as simple as it sounds. The early Mickey Mouse cartoons had blatant references to racism, antidemocratic references, they were exceptionally violent and were rife with sexual innuendo. In fact many Disney’s early cartoons are banned in there original form and can only be shown in their editted form if at all. These are the kind of things that Disney would not like the world to know about it but the authors of an article may wish to include into the article for historical accuracy. So can Disney Inc. use the copyright laws to sanatize its history?

    The way the copyright laws are written (at least in Canada where I live) an article outlining the distasteful things associated with Mickey Mouse may or may not be within fair use depending on how it is written.


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