Growing up when and where I did (rural SoDak in the 80s and 90s) meant we didn’t have many options for television stations. Eventually, in high school, we got a satellite dish which changed things for us, but up until then we literally had 3-5 stations, including the local NBC/CBS/ABC and, my most beloved, PBS.
Although we watched network stations on Saturday mornings for cartoons (because that was really the only time those stations ran such things back in the day), our go-to after school was the children’s programming on PBS, also known to me as South Dakota Public Broadcasting. And it was the best.
Over the years I remember watching Letter People, Ghost Writer, Bill Nye the Science Guy, 3-2-1 Contact, Lambchop’s Playhouse, Once Upon a Time, and Sesame Street (obviously not in that order because who knows exactly at what age I viewed each of those). My absolute, long-standing favorites, though, were Square One TV and Reading Rainbow. I adored both of those shows and couldn’t wait to fly off the school bus each afternoon so I could run into the house in time to catch both 30-minute programs before doing homework and having supper.
Square One TV was made up of little sketches (think SNL), songs, and a regular mini-series at the end of each episode called “Math Net” that I suppose was a spoof of Drag Net but I have no idea what that even means, beyond it being a crime solving duo which in this case, used the power of math to restore order (pun intended) to the world. Thirty+ years later and I can still remember songs about Archimedes and “The Mathematics of Love” that taught kids to read Roman numerals, and a “Math Net” case that involved the Fibonacci Sequence, so yeah, I’d say it was highly effective programming.
Reading Rainbow took the cake, though, for making a lasting impression on this reading-obsessed kid. LeVar Burton is the epitome of childhood + TV associations for me because it’s possible I saw every single episode of the show in which he would meet people, share lessons, inspire imaginations, and, of course, introduce us to fantastic children’s books. I can still sing the entire theme song and I get a swell of nostalgia whenever I see a title I remember from the show like A Chair for My Mother or Angel Child, Dragon Child, and Abiyoyo. A few years ago they did a KickStarter campaign to reboot the show on Netflix and of course I contributed, earning me a shirt that I’ve worn so many times since, my own children will probably associate with their childhoods someday.
As a mom, I’ve tried to steer my kids on a similar PBS path but their world is quite different than mine and they have what often feels like overwhelming, limitless choices for what they might watch. Of course, most of it isn’t nearly the quality that PBS (still) provides, so I’m always thankful when one of them latches on to any show from NET (Nebraska Educational Telecommunications, now called NPM, Nebraska Public Media). Over the years, those loves have included HD and Dinosaur Train (which is how my blog, The Modern Maiasaura, got it’s name) and WA with Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood (ironic because I also love DTN but was never a huge Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood fan when I was kid), and allll of them with Curious George which got me through many a cat-nap on the couch during my various pregnancies when I also had toddlers who needed to be entertained while I snoozed. I even called them PBS Naps!
So even though my own kids will remember quite different and more varied shows when they look back on this same question of favorite Saturday cartoons someday, I’m confident that there will be an intergenerational love for PBS that holds for them just as it does for me.