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Zooming off

`COME ON and Zoom" has been one of television's best offers to children. "Zoom" is a public television classic that was created locally by WGBH. Sadly, the show is bowing out of the lineup because of falling ratings.

Instead of cartoons, "Zoom" offers kids a live-action forum. Zoomers sing songs, tell jokes, and go on field trips.

Under the mantle "Zoom into Action," the program and its website encourage children to volunteer, with tips on how to help the environment, seniors, children, the homeless, and causes in other countries. Stories and letters describe what viewers have done, from donating hair to make wigs for sick children to sending food and medical supplies overseas.

A signature feature of the show is the amusing, tongue-twisting, Ubbi Dubbi language. ("Just say `UB' before every vowel sound," the website advises. So "I watch Zoom" translates to Ubi wubatch Zuboom.) Adults may stutter, but Zoomers seem to speak Ubbi Dubbi effortlessly -- a reminder that some things are probably best left to kids.

At the heart of the show is a simple theme: Children have amusing, insightful things to say to each other. Being hip isn't nearly as important as being yourself. And no one tries to emulate the hyper-sexualized, pop music glitz radiated by Britney Spears.

"Zoom" will end after its 2005 season.

WGBH officials say they had hoped to keep "Zoom" going. But officials at PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service, want to take the best elements of "Zoom" -- its live action, kid-run style, curriculum-based content, and highly interactive website -- and put them in a new frame.

WGBH officials are developing other live action children's programs including a show tentatively called "Hot Seat," where five cast members will face challenging tasks. Another show that might be called "Design Squad" will feature two teams trying to accomplish engineering tasks -- echoing the format of reality television shows.

It's easy to understand why public television is attracted to the ratings-rich reality genre. And since this is public television, it's safe to assume that no one will be eating bugs or looking for love in all the wrong places.

But losing "Zoom" will drain some of television's originality. WGBH producers should work hard to make sure that the new shows are original, not just part of the herd.

Offering a creative broadcast space for children is one of public television's strenghts. In a media world that largely encourages children to become consumers, young viewers benefit from shows that encourage them to grow through self expression -- to matter not just as shoppers but as contributors.

On or off the air, "Zoom" 's spirit should guide public television, encouraging and showcasing children's best accomplishments. 

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