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The story of Arthur as a TV show on PBS Kids began in a library. GBH producer Carol Greenwald heard author Marc Brown give a reading to a group of children, but couldn’t speak to him because he was so mobbed by adoring Arthur book fans. The resulting collaboration, a television show with a goal to inspire a love of reading, became the country’s longest-running animated children’s series that concluded its original run on Feb. 23.
Introduced to Arthur in 1999, I was not the show’s demographic, but a new PBS hire tasked with helping the show producers bring their characters to life on a new website for young viewers. The top-rated kids’ show on the network, Arthur quickly became one of my favorite PBS Kids programs and one that I believe captures elementary school better than any other I’ve seen.
While the show has evolved over these last 25 years, it has remained true to the mission of PBS Kids since its inception: to use the power of media to open worlds of possibilities for children. At PBS Kids, we seek to celebrate children’s natural curiosity, using smart, funny, character-based narratives to model enthusiasm for learning and exploring the world. We know the importance of learning good character skills, like kindness and empathy, and use our games and shows to illustrate how to build friendships, solve problems and see the world from a variety of perspectives.
It might be ironic to say this about an aardvark, but Arthur is really about managing the complexity of being human. Because of that, the show has been able to connect with viewers in a very powerful way. “Arthur was like a 3rd parent for me,” a viewer recently wrote on Twitter. “It brought my family together, taught me facts and social skills, and gave me joy.”
I believe Arthur is also a model for the possibilities of kids’ media, using authentic storytelling and diverse, complex characters to address not just the funny stories of growing up and the more challenging moments that children face. Like many real kids, Arthur has a friend with asthma, a kid in his class has to navigate peanut allergies and his best friend moves away for a few months to live with his dad.
The first episode I watched, “The Chips are Down,” sees D.W. and Binky each eat green potato chips and become convinced that the chips were poisoned. Resolving in true Arthur form, their fear of imminent death drives Binky to take a ballet class (something he was always too embarrassed to do) and inspires D.W. to be nicer to those around her. There’s also a healthy lesson about talking to a trusted sibling or grown-up when you’re scared.
Arthur and his friends face some scary and serious issues, and each episode treats the challenges of childhood — and its joys — with respectful consideration. Arthur has also managed to reflect a wide variety of children’s lived experiences in America, including characters from rural communities, military families, single-parent households, kids from various cultural backgrounds and religions, those with disabilities and more.
It also introduced children to real-life adults blazing trails and making an impact through their work. Guest stars such as Yo-Yo Ma, Fred Rogers, Michelle Kwan and Congressman John Lewis’ stories inspire children to imagine their own future contributions. The show makes kids feel seen in their individuality, and by reflecting those real experiences, it manages to be universally appealing.
So why end the production of the show? Because it’s more than just a show. The series has always been a truly multiplatform experience that exists well beyond its episodes. The team at GBH was not only an early innovator alongside us with the website but has brought Arthur to life through digital and classroom games, shorts, interactive episodes and pioneering digital content approaches for children with disabilities.
As early as 2002, PBS Kids had Arthur games that blind, low and limited vision kids could play, too — long before others were prioritizing accessibility online for children’s content.
The PBS Kids approach to programming has always sought to ensure that children have a variety of ways to access our content. We do this for equity, making sure we’re available to kids on the devices they already have, but also because we know that different mediums, like games and interactives, offer different approaches to learning.
In that same vein, new Arthur content will roll out this year and beyond, including a podcast, more interactive digital games and short-form videos that will continue to address the big and small experiences facing kids today. And, of course, Arthur episodes will continue to be available across PBS Kids broadcast and streaming platforms.
Arthur’s legacy will continue to inspire our work at PBS Kids: telling authentic stories that model how to listen, communicate, resolve conflicts and respect each other. And as we continue to welcome new voices to our platforms and to experiment with new approaches to deepen our engagement with audiences, young viewers will continue to not only see themselves and their lives reflected on screen but see people, ideas and experiences different from their own reflected, too.
The history of PBS Kids has always been rooted in how accessible representative media can help all kids learn, and have fun doing it — a revolutionary idea at the time, pioneered by Fred Rogers. It’s a foundation that was set by shows like Arthur, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow — all mainstays on the network in the ’90s.
The future of PBS Kids will continue to do this with compelling, passionate characters whose adventures reflect an even broader variety of lived experiences. And we want to make sure that all children across America can access that expanding content — for free and without advertising — on a variety of linear and digital platforms and devices.
More than two decades after I first watched Arthur, I was reminded again of the show’s power last weekend. My son had been watching the marathon and came running into the kitchen: “Congressman John Lewis was on Arthur! We learned about him at school!” The exclamation led to a dinner conversation about the importance of standing up for what is right, even if it’s hard.
Arthur is a critical part of PBS Kids and will continue to inspire us — and all of our producers — to respect and honor children’s experiences as they grow. The hope is that together, we can continue to help create a world filled with kindness, compassion and friendship, just like Arthur.
Sara DeWitt is the senior vice president of PBS Kids.
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