For some, Morgan Freeman is best known for his compelling performances in such films as Driving Miss Daisy and The Shawshank Redemption. But for kids who grew up in the 1970s, it is difficult not to first associate Freeman with the children's educational program, The Electric Company. The program, created by the Children's Television Workshop was aimed at seven to ten-year olds who were having difficulty learning to read. Along with fellow cast members Rita Moreno, Bill Cosby and others, Freeman presented a successful mix of vaudeville, parody and satire in a rapidly paced, hip, yet educational program. According to child researcher Edward Palmer, "The Electric Company posed a particular challenge, because it had to entice children who were experiencing reading failure to return again and again voluntarily, to a screen filled with words." One technique employed by the creators of the show involved the telling of a joke, but having the punchline available only in writing on the screen. Another technique included difficult words displayed on screen that would self destruct, the audience was told "in five seconds" thus provoking the reader to quickly identify challenging vocabulary terms.
One of Freeman's trademarks today is the cool, deliberate and resonant quality of his voice. It is so distinctive, in fact, that when one hears Freeman speak, it instantly conjures memories of one of the more innovative segments featured on every episode of The Electric Company. Freeman, with his profile in silhouette, would face another actor, also in silhouette, and the two would form compound words together, each actor pronouncing half of the full word. Animated texts would come from the lips of the two actors. Then the two would say the whole word together, and the text would join. These segments had an oddly compelling quality that registered deep and permanently into the minds of many future generation xers.
Freeman and all who worked on The Electric Company have a right to be proud of their achievements. In a test conducted by Princeton University it was determined that after six months, viewers of the series had made significantly greater progress in reading than nonviewers. The series became the most used educational television program in history, used by more schools in the United States than any other program, and Sidney Marland, then Commissioner of the U. S. Office of Education described it, along with Sesame Street as "The best educational investment ever made in the country."
The Electric Company, in the able hands of earnest and sophisticated talents like Morgan Freeman, proved that television, as a nonthreatening and nonpunitive instructor, can have a lasting and important influence on young learners.
Palmer, Edward L. Television and America's Children: A Crisis of
Neglect. New York, Oxford: Oxford University press, 1988.
Copyright 2005© Kevin Shortsleeve
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Monday, 02-May-2005 10:56:26 EDT