Ed-Tech Policy

PBS To Unveil Geography Game Show Based on Popular Computer Character

September 25, 1991 4 min read
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“I know President Bush has criticized televison [viewing by children],” she added. “But it can still teach.”

“Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” premieres over PBS on Sept. 30 at 5 P.M. Two back-to-back half-hour episodes will also be shown at 8 P.M. that day to introduce the show to parents and children. Following its premiere, the half-hour will be broadcast each weekday. (All times are Eastern. Because PBS station schedules vary, viewers should check local listings.)

The show is based on the successful personal-computer game of the same name created by Broderbund Software of San Rafael, Calif. Carmen Sandiego is a former spy turned international thief, who roams the globe committing such crimes as stealing the torch from the Statue of Liberty or one of the Presidential faces off Mount Rushmore.

In the computer-game version, which has sold more than 2 million copies in various editions since its introduction in 2985, participants use reference books to decipher geographic clues that help track down the elusive Carmen and her band of thieves.

The television show takes that premise, then adds a blend of computer animation, live musical and comic touches by a singing group, plus a studio audience and contestants from the target age group of 8-to 13-year-old children.

The result is a cross between the syndicated “Jeopardy” and Nickelodeon’s once-popular “Double Dare,” a game show for children that did not have educational content.

“We are trying to create something with commercial entertainment value within public-television sensibilities,” said Kate Taylor, of WGBH-TV in Boston, and one of two executive producers for the show. The Boston station is co-producing the show with WQED-TV in Pittsburgh.

“It is an enormous challenge,” added Ms. Taylor, who shares the title of executive producer with Jay Rayrid of WQED. “Kids don’t want to watch Tv that is supposed to be good for them.”

The producers see the show as a response to studies that document a lack of geographic knowledge among American students.

“Many adults today have not had much geography in school,” said Mr. Rayvid. “Kids today are just beginning to get geography again. There obviously is a real need today.”

The Missing Mona Lisa

On one of the premiere episodes, Ms. Sandiego and one of her henchmen, Vic the Slick, seize the Mona Lisa. They traverse the globe from Italy to Japan to South America, and finally to Dallas, where Vic is captured and the masterpiece recovered.

A typical question provides the three contestants with clues that help them track down the thieves, such as “a Japanese industrial city, just south of Kyoto, known for its puppet theatre. Is it Yokohama, Osaka, or Nagasaki?” Answer: Osaka.

The clues are provided by animated characters as well as by the chief of detectives (Lynne Thigpen), the host (Greg Lee), and such celebrities as Walter Cronkite, Branford Marsalis, and Regis Philbin.

Once her accomplice is captured, an attempt to nab Ms. Sandiego marks the finale to each day’s episode. The final contestant must identify seven countries on a giant floor map of a continent, such as Africa, in only 45 seconds. Winners get a free trip anywhere in the continental United States. In the two back-to-back episodes to air in prime time, Ms. Sandiego remains at large at show’s end.

The show has clear similarities to Nickelodeon-style children’s game shows, with a fast pace, a studio audience, and an emphasis on fun.

We are trying the game-show format for the first time in public broadcasting, so part of what we have done has been to go get people who have done them,” said Mr. Rayvid.

The show’s senior producer, Howard J. Blumenthal, helped develop the game show “Remote Control” on the MTV cable channel, as well as many of Nickelodeon’s early programs. Dana Calderwood, the director, has also directed episodes of"Double Dare” and “Remote Control.”

High Marks From Educators

The impetus for developing the TV version of “Carmen Sandiego” came from the two presenting stations, with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS, and a newly announced corporate underwriter, Toyota.

The approximate production cost for the first season of 65 episodes was $3 million, a relative bargain. The shows were finished this summer.

Although PBS will be distributing materials for teachers, the show is not tethered to a specific set of curriculum goals, as are many educational shows on public television.

“There are 70 to 90 bits of geography information in every show, but it is not intended to be instructional,” said Mr. Rayvid.

Nonetheless, the show is getting high marks from educators interested in advancing geographic knowledge among young people.

“I was impressed, and others here were impressed, that the show is fun, but it also getting across a lot of geography without the viewers knowing it,” said Mary Lee Elden, director of the National Geography Bee for the National Geographic Society in Washington. The society helped do fact-checking for the show.

“I know President Bush has criticized television [viewing by children],” she added. “But it can still teach.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 25, 1991 edition of Education Week as PBS To Unveil Geography Game Show Based on Popular Computer Character


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