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Bill Nye the Science Guy: the Importance of Children's Educational Tv

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Luna Lewis

Patrick Marshall

History of Media Arts II

23 March 2017

Bill Nye The Science Guy

And the Rise of Children's “Edutainment” Television

        People always thought I was weird when I would tell them I didn’t grow up watching Disney movies. The first time I watched Mulan was probably when I was thirteen years old. Unlike many of my school mates, growing up with conventional TV and movies was not included in my household agenda. I did not have cable and there were multiple times where I couldn’t even say I owned a television. Personally, I was terrified of dramatic music, which explained why I was resistant to film or any other type of dramatic media for so long. I could not possibly dream of handling that sonic stress until I was deep into high school. So what happened? How did a kid that lived under a proverbial rock grow to become a movie obsessed media major? One of the many answers is is Bill Nye the Science Guy. This 90’s classic taught me about volcanoes, architecture and the human body far before I learned any of it in school; and on top of that, it was entertaining. Bill Nye the Science Guy was born out of a movement that brought fourth entertaining educational television aimed at young children and put the genre on the map.

        To be a kid born of the American 90’s is to be born in one of the most peaceful decades in our history. The Unites States was relaxing after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the mounting tensions of the cold war; the middle class was growing with the average household income increasing by 10% over the decade; and there was a wave of cultural tolerance that brought diversity to a peak allowing for things such as the breakthrough of commercial hip-hop. The traditional modernized American family was being shaped by sitcoms and suburbs, and they were watching a lot of TV. The push for kids shows grew. Saturday morning cartoon blocks were becoming a thing of the past and kids TV time became all the time with the rise of cable. Cable was becoming the it feature for American homes. New networks just for kids like Cartoon Network and a revamped Nickelodeon were starting to make big commercial success with new format cartoons, and less and less was available on basic television. But as more and more theories were raised about the effects of television on children, and kids were watching tv younger and younger there was a push for more quality, educational programs. Shows that would be especially accessible to low income families to help “at risk” children learn at home.

        Bill Nye the Science Guy was one of many shows that was born from this push. Bill Nye’s persona as the “the science guy” started out as a six minute segment on a local Seattle comedy sketch show called Almost Live, where Nye would make a funny bit somehow explaining a scientific property. When the creators, Nye, James McKenna and Erren Gottlieb joined with  KCTS-TV Seattle they had no idea it would bloom into an 19 time Emmy award winning iconic show. The show first aired on Sept 10th, 1993 and was later syndicated to local stations and turned into educational VHS sets. PBS, which was already the pioneer of educational shows, had joined with the United States Department of Education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and crafted the “Ready to Learn” initiative in 1990. The initiative, which sought to fund shows that would better prepare kids for success in school and life, was key to ushering in this new wave of shows that would eventually lead to PBS creating its own kids channel, PBS Kids. Bill Nye, along with other shows like The Magic School Bus and The Big Comfy Couch, was among the first to receive funding from this initiative. And with additional founding from the the National Science Foundation, Bill Nye was able to turn his zany, quirky comedy and love of science into a 30 minute show that featured himself and a diverse cast of kids, doing experiments, little skits and teaching a generation about properties of lava though song.

        I must have watched the Bill Nye the Science Guy episode on volcanoes at least 100 times, which is pretty good considering I didn’t have even basic cable. This is where we bring it around to myself, and technology. Though it wasn’t integral in making the show itself the only way I was able to watch Bill Nye, or any of the shows I grew up on, was because of my grandmothers VCR. She would record hours of PBS Kids on VHS’ and give them to me. I amassed a collection of VHS’ with various episodes of Arthur, Sesame Street, Zoom Kids, and Bill Nye, which I cherished and watched over and over again. Because my resources were so limited, I did not get as much exposure to TV in comparison to other kids my age, so PBS Kids was my Disney or Nickelodeon. Though I don’t know which kind of VCR she had, she was one of many Americans at the time using the analog Tivo in order to capture and re-watch beloved programs using the video home system. VHS is also what allowed for Bill Nye the Science Guy to be used in schools as a learning tool after it had aired to the public. I know many a millennial can remember walking into elementary class and smiling with lack-of-classwork glee at the sight of the TV cart in the room. Distributed by Disney affiliate Buena Vista Television, the VHS education box set is still on sale today for educators, though it might be just for novelty at this point.

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