With Mysterious ‘Star,’ PBS Series Promotes Literacy

By Mark Walsh — September 30, 1992 7 min read
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The “star’’ of the Public Broadcasting Service’s new weekly literacy series for children is a bit mysterious.

His name is Ghostwriter. He has been stuck in an ancient, leatherbound book for an unknown number of years. After being freed inadvertently, the shy and invisible character befriends a small band of New York City schoolchildren, helping them solve such mysteries as who is stealing students’ backpacks or who is putting up posters smearing a candidate during a school election.

As his young friends soon learn, there is only one way to communicate with this unseen ghost. Since he cannot hear or speak, he uses a student’s computer or rearranges any available letters, such as words on a chalkboard, to send messages to his six teammates.

To talk to Ghostwriter, the students must put their thoughts into writing. Thus, the show promotes both reading and writing to its target audience of 7- to 10-year-olds.

“Ghostwriter,’' described as one of the most ambitious educational-television shows to debut in years, premieres Oct. 4 at 6 P.M. on PBS. The show will also get an unusual early debut on a commercial network. Fox Television will show a half-hour version of the premiere on Oct. 3.

The show is the newest educational series from the Children’s Television Workshop, the producer of such children’s shows as “Sesame Street,’' “The Electric Company,’' and “Square One TV.’'

“The shows are exciting,’' Liz Nealon, the executive producer of “Ghostwriter,’' said of the new program. “I think they have an emotional core that has to do with the relationship between the six kids and Ghostwriter.’'

Blending Education and Plot

Each full mystery tale is handled in four or five half-hour episodes. (The PBS premiere includes the first two half-hour episodes. Most stations will repeat one half-hour show each week before airing the new episode.)

The first five episodes introduce Ghostwriter and four of the six members of his mystery-solving team. The caper involves a string of backpack robberies by a gang of masked bullies, the THABTOS, who leave behind coded messages that eventually lead to their capture.

As with most C.T.W. projects, the cast is a multicultural rainbow, the shows are sprinkled with positive social messages, and the educational elements are blended into the plot.

“That way it doesn’t feel like an educational pause’’ when it comes time to insert the reading- and writing-curriculum elements, said Ms. Nealon, who spent 10 years working for MTV: Music Television before taking the helm of the “Ghostwriter’’ project in 1991.

The project has been several years in the making, with support coming from many quarters: the C.T.W., the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, the U.S. Education Department, and Nike Inc.'s Just Do It Fund.

The athletic-apparel manufacturer is the sole corporate underwriter of the show, contributing $5 million for the first season, which is believed to be the largest-ever single grant for a children’s educational-television show.

“When presented with the ‘Ghostwriter’ project, we immediately felt the goals were so closely in sync with our own, the opportunity was just too good to pass up,’' said Virginia Henson, the director of public affairs for Nike. “We decided it was worth putting all our eggs in one basket to get this project launched.’'

Behind the Scenes

On a sweltering day here this summer, the air-conditioning was pumping full blast at a television studio in East Harlem where “Ghostwriter’’ was in production.

On the cramped set, technicians were touching up a reproduction of an abandoned subway tunnel for a scene in which a member of the Ghostwriter team is trapped.
After a lunch break, Todd Alexander, a New Jersey high school student who plays Rob, a Ghostwriter team member, returned to the set. The 15-year-old actor has appeared on such other shows as “Kate and Allie,’' “As the World Turns,’' and “Saturday Night Live.’' He took his place in the tunnel for a long afternoon of shooting the difficult scene.

Meanwhile, in several windowless offices nearby, the crucial behind-the-scenes work for “Ghostwriter’’ went on.

As with other Children’s Television Workshop shows, “Ghostwriter’’ has a writing and production team that is supplemented by separate educational-content and research staffs. It also has an educational advisory board studded with national experts in reading and writing.

The creators of “Ghostwriter’’ have set three broad goals for the show:

  • To motivate children to enjoy and value reading and writing.

  • To show them how to use effective reading and writing strategies.

  • To provide them with “compelling’’ opportunities to read and write.

“More kids than we’d like to think about don’t read for fun, and they are not writing to a friend,’' said Rita Weisskoff, an educator who joined the C.T.W. in 1988 as content director for the “Ghostwriter’’ project. “They haven’t experienced the personal payoffs of reading or writing.’'

The key to the “Ghostwriter’’ story lines is that each features an “obstacle that can’t be overcome without reading or writing,’' Ms. Nealon, the executive producer, added. “The hook for us is literacy on the plot line. That is the phrase we live by. We have found that in the research, the children can’t tell us about the story without talking about reading and writing.’'

An Effort at ‘Hipness’

The show’s research staff visits New York-area schools to test everything from the readability of the printed letters used by Ghostwriter to the believability and hipness of the student characters.

“The kids are the experts on that,’' said Eve Hall, the show’s research director. Her staff has done prototype research, followed up by testing of the earliest finished segments to full sets of episodes. The producers never stop fine-tuning the show.

For example, the researchers learned early on that test viewers found some segments difficult to follow. So “we made them more straightforward, more step-by-step,’' Ms. Hall said. But the tests “also told us about a lot of things that were really working.’'

One pupil caught on fast to the concept of the Ghostwriter character. He is “the spirit of the words,’' the child said.

Educators who have seen the show have been impressed.

“The plot line is very compelling,’' said Sarah Warshauer Freedman, the director of the Center for the Study of Writing at the University of California at Berkeley. “If these kids can become role models, they are modeling really good literacy behavior. They are kids who have power.’'

Ms. Freedman, a member of the show’s advisory board, rejects the argument that encouraging children to watch another television show is not a sound approach to increasing literacy skills.

“TV is a part of our culture, and it is certainly a part of youth culture,’' she said. “There is nothing that we can do to change that. The important thing to do is capitalize on it.’'

Ms. Weisskoff added that there are many children in the target age group whose “experiences with print have been so unhappy. We are trying to use the power of television to introduce them to the power of the printed word.’'

Unprecedented Outreach

The television show itself is only one component of a larger strategy to meet the curriculum goals of “Ghostwriter.’' There is an apparently unprecedented outreach effort designed especially to serve the third goal of giving children compelling opportunities to read and write.

Besides the usual guides for teachers and students, two million copies of a mini-magazine about the show will appear 10 times this school year. A weekly newspaper feature is being distributed by the Newspaper Association of America Foundation. Members of such after-school groups as the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of America and the Young Men’s Christian Association will receive monthly activity guides. Posters are going up in libraries and post offices nationwide.

Bantam Doubleday Dell is publishing 12 “Ghostwriter’’ paperback books.

Nike is working to make sure children know about the show and when it is airing. The company has sponsored a regional tour featuring some of its endorsement celebrities, such as the professional athlete Bo Jackson. Both Mr. Jackson and the filmmaker Spike Lee will make cameo appearances on “Ghostwriter’’ this season.

But to have a really big impact, Nike came up with the idea of reaching children where many spend their Saturday mornings: watching commercial television. Nike is the chief sponsor for a half-hour sneak preview of “Ghostwriter’’ on the Fox network. It airs Oct. 3 at 11:30 A.M. Eastern time (10:30 A.M. Central time).

“We looked hard at what we could do nationally,’' said Ms. Hensen of Nike. “We arrived at the idea of doing not just national ads, but taking the program and exposing it on commercial TV. That’s why we went after the arrangement with Fox. That gives us that big-bang exposure.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 30, 1992 edition of Education Week as With Mysterious ‘Star,’ PBS Series Promotes Literacy


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