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From 'Sesame St.' to science

This may be the year that science finds its rightful space on television. Children's Television Workshop, the company which brought you "Sesame Street, " has gone into the science business.

And they have come up with "3-2-1 Contact" (daily on weekdays, starting today , check local listings for time). It's a show for "Sesame Street" alumni.

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CTW itself possesses impeccable credentials to do the show but, just to be sure, it has accumulated an impressive group of scientific and academic advisers as well as some funding from the National Science Foundation, the US office of Education, and United Technologies Corporation. In addition, elaborate plans have been made for classroom use.

According to CTW's own promotion, the show reflects "more pre-production research of its target audience (8 to 12 year olds) than any other television series in history." More than two years went into 50 studies involving more than 10,000 children across the country to discover what children think of scientists , what they understand, what they want to know and, "most of all, how children learn best about science from television." The result: a hey-kids-ins't-science-fun?- type show. Any viewer of "Sesame Street" could have predicted the kind of series its producers would ultimately decided upon.

"3-2-1 Contact" ism fun. Whether it is the best way to learn about science is another matter. It is full of short-attention- span, jazzy little numbers brought to you mostly by a company of three young hosts who wander about the world searching out lively items of scientific interest which somehow, mostly indirectly, explain what our universe is all about. Like "Sesame Street" there is some special emphasis on the needs of "minority children" and, it seems to me , undereducated children.

Documentary films, animation, location clips, music, and studio action compose the format. As an added bonus, there is a daily short mystery: "3-2-1 Contact" seems to believe, like "Sesame Street," that the "blood, sweat, and tears" part of learning must be concealed at all costs from the learner. Hide the bitter pill in a chocolate chip cookie. Sing, dance always "to a number," but never never look the viewer straight in the eye and say: "Here's some fascinating information, well worth learning about. Listen and you may learn. Read more about it and you will probably learn even more."

This over-reserached "3-2-1" is obviously aimed at the "Sesame Street" graduate weaned on the "learn-in" a la "Laugh-in." The easy pleasure of entertainment replaces the thrill of discovery.

The initial week's theme is: sound. A real effort is made to de-mystify various aspects of the noises of our society, starting with how the theme music is recorded, explaining the telephone and the voice box. There is fascinating material buried in the sketches and routines -- some of it even, horror of horrors, identifiable as valid information. Probably the most fascinating of all is one of the few straightforward teaching sessions on how a mechanical voice can reproduce human sounds and, of course, how the vocal chords do it as well.

"The Bloodhound Gang" routines struck me as much too complex for the subliminallyeducating function they are expected to perform. But, like "The Muppets," the Bloodhound Gant has its own educated piggy.

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So, parents and 8 to 12 year olds can brace themselves for the daily onslaught of "3-2-1" entertainment-learning sessions. Just in case parents wish to avoid the show in their homes, chances are it will be awaiting the children in school. "3-2-1" seems almost an inevitable as . . . the weather. (Stage instruction: at this point release the dancing snowflake sisters.) Media probes

Whether by coincidence or plan, PBS is also premiering in the same week a kind of adult version of "3-2-1". It is called "Media Probes" (in some cities Monday, 8-8:30 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats). And, this time surely by coincidence, the subject matter is: sound.

The premiere segment is the first of what may be a series of eight half hours exploring the role of mass communication technologies within our culture. Utilizing sophisticated, yet similar techniques to those used on "3-2-1," this show investigates the wide variety of sounds so pervasive in our society -- how we use them and how they use us. Included is America's most pervasive sound: Muzak.

"Media Probes" allows Elizabeth Swados to rail against boring, monotonous sounds with a marvelous song about unconventional sounds; it, too looks at the telephone; it digs a bit into the role of radio in our society and ends up with a fascinating it complex peek at Thomas Edison's first phonograph recording. For a grand finale, the show allows impressario Fred Weinberg to turn Edison's original "Mary had a little lamb" recording into a contemporary hit record.

"Media Probes," the culmination of independent producers Kit Laybourne and Michael Lemle's long search of funding and air time, will continue next year.

One note of interest of science-minded youngsters (and adults): CBS has decided to go ahead with at least six more of the Walter Cronkite-hosted "Universe" shows, the pilot of which was aired several months ago. It features head-on, non-game-playing science segments. In addition, Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" series will be airing on PBS within the year, joining the "Nova" science series, the new "Odyssey" anthropological series, and the "Darwin" mini-series in a superb group of fascinating science-oriented learning experiences, which depend upon fabulous facts rather than entertaining tricks.


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