Geography cruised into the popular culture four years ago when ``Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?'' - already a hit computer game - became a fixture on children's television.
The show was aimed at 8-to-12-year-olds, but a fair smattering of younger children and adults were also drawn to its mix of geographical quizzes, detective plots, and jivey gab and music.
In their efforts to keep the show fresh, Carmen's staff tries to ``remember the Bullwinkle factor,'' says show host Greg Lee. ``Rocky and Bullwinkle'' were late `60s cartoon characters with enduring appeal for both kids and adults.
This year's search for the TV equivalent of the fountain of youth led to the creation of a crew of good-guy detective helpers to counter Carmen's gang of ``baddies.'' Each will be played by the versatile Mr. Lee.
The show's geographical content will also shift a bit, with greater emphasis on North America and on the culture of native Americans. ``We consciously think about content every year, both for the TV show and the printed materials'' sent to schools, says co-producer Kate Taylor at WGBH in Boston.
``Our premise,'' she says, ``is that geography is not just the naming of localities, but the study of cultures, and even of weather patterns.'' The other co-producer is Jay Rayvid of WQED, Pittsburgh.
That broader definition of geography can be seen in the questions and clues that confront young ``gumshoes'' on the trail of the elusive Carmen.
Each show ends with that day's winner having 45 seconds to put a marker on eight points on a giant continental map laid out on the studio floor. The grand prize is a trip anywhere in the continental United States.
Maps for this final test have gotten more complex, with mountain ranges and rivers - not just countries - to find. But the show had to keep up with the kids, who are ``definitely getting brighter on how to play the game,'' Lee says
Contestants come primarily from the states neighboring Carmen's New York City production site - New Jersey, New York State, and Connecticut. The show doesn't have the resources to recruit all around the country, Taylor says. But staffers do visit hundreds of schools, and try to include kids from all kinds of communities - inner-city, suburban, and rural.