50 Years Ago: The Launch of the Original “Zoom”

January 9, 1972 was the launch date of a kids’ show many of us, of a certain age, associate very much with Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Zoom was produced at WGBH in Boston and aired at PBS stations around the country. The interesting thing about the show from a psychological perspective is what the brain retains about it. Unlike those other two shows, Zoom didn’t feature licensed puppet characters, animations, professional actors, or top industry songwriting talent. Instead, it showcased a constantly shifting cast of fellow kids, each of whom was employed on the show for just a few months, and contractually obligated not to be on any other shows for years afterwards. That leaves us remembering…next to nothing, except, perhaps the concept, the uniform the kids wore, vague memories of faceless and diverse children dancing in formation, and the tune to the catchy theme song, and the zip code of WHBH’s address, which was sung: “0-2-1-3-4”.

The kids on Zoom were not meant to be or become stars; instead they were intended to be stand-ins for US, the children watching the show. They were seen to be putting on every aspect of the show themselves, not just the on-camera part, but also shooting, taping, and editing it, which I guess was meant to empower children, although I’m not sure how that’s meant to work. “Those kids are on TV. I’m not” feels quite the opposite of empowering to me. The segments on the show consisted of jokes, riddles, songs, recipes, recited poems, dances and the like. But (and this is what is interesting to me), in spite of that theoretical egalitarian and educational concept, one still found oneself trying to “make” stars in one’s head. You’d pick a favorite kid, watch out for them in particular, and then they would vanish, never to be seen again. There was a generic, almost Soviet anonymity to the show. Kids did watch it and enjoy it, and acquired whatever merch there was (I seem to remember posters, lunch boxes, and the like) but Zoom only lasted a few years, through 1978, with reruns shown through 1980. And because of its high concept and lack of polished production values, one doesn’t remember particular moments on the show as classic or timeless. Instead, it’s like a frozen record of some children putting on a show, like somebody’s home movies.

Zoom was revived again in 1999 with more of a hip hop energy, lasting in this incarnation through 2005 — some of you young ‘uns may remember that version instead. A still younger generation will associate the onomatopoeia of its title primarily with a certain online distance-learning and communications platform. This is just to let that faction know why older people initially felt the need to sing “Zoom-a, Zoom-a, Zoom-a, Zoom” when they first heard about it.