“Death seldom shows us at our best.”
As we head into the last week of the popular 1897 storyline, we find Dark Shadows in a surprisingly perilous position. The show hit its all-time ratings peak just a couple weeks ago, but we’re already accumulating suspects in the ongoing “Who Killed Dark Shadows” murder mystery dinner theater.
The situation on the ground at ABC Studio 16 is a bit of a mess. They’ve recently sped up production to six days a week, so that they can build a larger backlog of episodes before they start filming the House of Dark Shadows movie. That’s running everyone ragged, including the three-person writing team, just at the point where they’re finishing this epic storyline, and they need to come up with a new one.
But the show also faces external threats — and today, on November 10th, 1969, another suspect emerges. He’s eight foot two, yellow, and he doesn’t know how to count.
Daily soap operas are mostly aimed at housewives, but Dark Shadows has broadened its appeal to include thrill-seeking teenagers, who hurry home after school to catch the 4:00 broadcast. And their younger brothers and sisters are tuning in too, which is surprising for a couple of reasons. For one thing, the show is almost entirely about grown-ups yelling at each other, which you wouldn’t expect to be a big draw for the elementary crowd. More than that, though, it’s surprising that anyone would allow their children anywhere near this increasingly dark and violent show.
Just in the last week, the show has featured the following: a woman falling off a cliff, a man getting stabbed in the chest with a dagger, and a woman drugging her husband and then locking him up in a room to starve to death. Later on this week, somebody sets a house on fire, and burns it to the ground.
Today’s episode begins with a deranged prison guard grabbing a man, and choking him to death with a length of chain — the second on-screen death by strangulation in four episodes. Dark Shadows has always been irresponsible television, but the scares have usually been fantasy-based — magic spells, vampire bites, dream sequences and werewolf attacks. It is now a pageant of easily imitated felonies.
And yet, just a couple weeks ago, Barnabas Collins was invited to the White House for Tricia Nixon’s Halloween party, where he entertained a crowd of underprivileged under-twelves. There’s a whole line of merchandise that’s targeted directly at the young set — board games, Halloween costumes, View-Master reels, trading cards and joke books. People seem to believe that there’s a “Halloween haunted house” version of Dark Shadows that’s appropriate for young children, which bears almost no resemblance to what’s actually happening on screen.
A couple months ago, we talked about Action for Children’s Television, a grassroots organization founded in 1968 by a group of housewives who objected to the commercialism and violence on children’s television. This remarkably successful group managed in its first year to get Romper Room to tone down its sales appeals to the toddlers, and then they drove all of Hanna-Barbera’s violent superhero cartoons off the air. By fall 1969, The Herculoids, Space Ghost and Birdman were dropped from the Saturday morning schedules, and replaced with tame runarounds like Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?
Now, as far as I know, Action for Children’s Television never targeted Dark Shadows, despite its 4:00 timeslot and the kid-friendly merchandising. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody publicly objecting to the show as a bad influence for children. But this is a moment when people are starting to think more critically about the subject — and on November 10th, along comes the Children’s Television Workshop, actively constructing a new relationship between the Children and the Television.
Children’s Television Workshop is a non-profit group founded in 1968 by a gang of do-gooders and hippies and educators and geniuses, who wanted to use television to help prepare young children for school, especially in low-income families. Research showed that middle-class children tested substantially better in school-related skills than kids from low-income families, and that disparity continued even after they started school. CTW wanted to offer pre-school education to families who couldn’t afford it, by broadcasting educational content on television.
CTW didn’t invent the idea of using television as a substitute for pre-school; there was actually a tradition going back decades. There was a show called Ding Dong School which premiered in 1952, calling itself “the Nursery School of the Air”. At Ding Dong, cameras were all set at a child’s height, and the host, Miss Frances, would address the kids directly, as if she was having a conversation with them. “How was your weekend?” she would say. “Did you go for a ride in the car? Oh! You went to see grandmother.” It was interactive TV, minus the interaction.
But Ding Dong School was a commercial enterprise, which means it was essentially a half-hour sales pitch for breakfast cereal, vitamins and an extensive line of Ding Dong School branded merchandise, including books, records, wagons, bells and baby dolls.
More importantly, Ding Dong School didn’t have a curriculum, or a plan. The same is true for Romper Room, Captain Kangaroo and all the other kids’ TV of the 50s and 60s. The shows were generally informative and pro-social, but they were broadcasting educational material into the airwaves, with no way to know if the viewers were actually learning anything.
Children’s Television Workshop had a revolutionary approach to the problem. They were supported by grants, so there weren’t any sponsorship messages in their show, and they had a serious team of educators and researchers determining the curriculum. That plan was split up into 130 daily hour-long episodes, and they studied the educational impact of the individual segments and the show as a whole. This wasn’t just TV that wasn’t bad for kids; it was TV designed to make kids smarter.
Obviously, the show is Sesame Street, which premiered on public television in November 1969, and is currently airing its 46th season. It is brilliant, and important, and I love it beyond words.
While Ding Dong School and Captain Kangaroo acted like remote schoolrooms, Sesame Street used the form and language of television to create a totally new kind of educational experience. It mixed live actors, puppets, animation, music and short films to keep kids’ interest. There were fast parts and slow parts, funny parts and repetitive parts. It used the quick-cut style of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In, communicating in the same visual language that kids were familiar with from other channels. Sesame Street was earnest and sincere; it was also cutting-edge and trendy.
One of the CTW team’s most important insights was that commercials were really effective at grabbing kids’ attention; children would sing the jingles and remember the products. So Sesame Street used short cartoons and films in the style of commercials, selling kids the letter J in the same way that another channel would sell them a candy bar. Then the research team would test the segments’ effectiveness, and replace the spots that didn’t work with new versions that did.
And it changed the way that people thought about TV. Time magazine featured Big Bird on the cover, with the banner Sesame Street — TV’s Gift to Children, in a November 1970 issue, after just one season on the air. Sesame Street became the gold standard of children’s television, and it happened almost immediately.
So two weeks ago, Barnabas Collins was hanging out with some underprivileged children, pretending that he was going to harm them. Today, Kermit the Frog is teaching them to recognize the letter W. It’s the difference between throwing kids a handful of junk food, and providing them with a nutritious diet.
Oh, and this was also the era when people started talking about kids and a nutritious diet. In this period — let’s say 1968 to 1973 — the way that America thought and talked about raising children changed in a significant way. Sesame Street is one example; here’s some more.
The Poison Prevention Packaging Act passed in 1970, requiring the use of child-proof caps on prescription drugs and household chemicals.
Another non-profit group called The Center for Science in the Public Interest was founded in 1971, advocating for safer and healthier food, especially in school lunch programs. One of the founders was Michael F. Jacobson, who’s credited with popularizing the term “junk food.”
There was also a growing sensitivity around unsafe toys. For example: Mattel’s “ThingMaker” line of plastic molding toys, which was launched in 1964 and included Creepie Crawlers, Fright Factory and Incredible Edibles. The kit was basically an exposed metal hot plate, and pretty much everybody who played with these admits that they got burned sometimes. Apparently, that was acceptable collateral damage in the 60s. In 1972, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Act, which shut that kind of nonsense down.
So there was this big-picture cultural shift in the way that parents thought about what their kids ate, and played with, and watched on television. There was a filter called “is this good for my kids”, and things that would have slipped through as “it’s probably fine” were suddenly registering as “keep that away from my child”.
I grew up in the 1970s, and by the time I was really aware of my surroundings — circa 1973 or so — Sesame Street had grown to fill the cultural space that Dark Shadows occupied for the young set. There were books and jigsaw puzzles and comics and View-Masters, just like Dark Shadows had — but the Sesame versions were intentionally designed to be educational. The jigsaw puzzles taught the seasons; the View-Master reels covered shapes and colors. Sesame Street taught the hell out of me. That’s why everybody from my generation is a genius.
By that time, even commercial television was in the business of child improvement. In 1973, ABC started airing Schoolhouse Rock! interstitials on Saturday morning, little Sesame-style lessons about grammar and history and civics. There were tons of little PSAs that aired on all the commercial stations — some of them animated, some with puppets — with helpful messages about nutritious food, and conserving electricity. The Better Business Bureau ran a series of ads in the mid-70s that used puppets to teach kids that they should always count their change before completing a cash transaction. That was an actual thing that I watched on television, enough times that I can remember it four decades later.
So here we are — November ’69 — and on the same day that Sesame Street started teaching kids to read and count, Dark Shadows was down at the other end of the moral seesaw, teaching them how to strangle people with chains. It’s incredible that both of these things were considered acceptable daytime TV, but that situtation didn’t last long, and Sesame Street won.
Now, I don’t think there was a specific day when the parents of America decided, “you know what, you should be watching Sesame Street instead of Dark Shadows,” and I don’t know if that caused a noticeable drop in the ratings. But a lot of things changed between 1968 and 1973. At the beginning of that period, you have Dark Shadows, and at the end of it, you don’t — and Sesame Street’s debut is a helpful dividing line that separates the TV environment where Dark Shadows thrived, and the environment where it sputtered and failed.
Tomorrow: The Don’t Sleepover.
Full disclosure: I’m even more of a hardcore Muppet fan than I am a Dark Shadows fan, and all of my online writing before this blog was for Muppet websites. I started ToughPigs.com back in 2001, which has news, reviews and snarky/loving commentary on everything Muppet, Sesame and so on. I don’t have time to write for it anymore, but my friends took it over and made it even better. You can find my old pieces in the archives — basically everything posted between 2001 and 2006 — and the current stuff is great too.
I also co-founded Muppet Wiki, a gorgeous, detailed and deeply strange encyclopedia of every possible thing that you’d want to know about the Muppets, Sesame Street and Jim Henson. At this point, it’s got almost 30,000 articles, including every character, song, sketch, episode, movie and book that you can think of, plus crazy surprises that you would never expect. Go and browse Muppet Wiki; it is guaranteed to make you smile.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
In the teaser, Blackwood waits too long to cry, “Justice must be done!” He does it during the musical sting, which is clearly late.
Tate shoots at Blackwood six times — click, click, click — before there’s finally smoke and a proper gun sound.
Tomorrow: The Don’t Sleepover.
— Danny Horn