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History Trivia Carmen Sandiego Is Helping Kids Learn About History In A New Game Show Format

In a television-happy culture, it would just figure that Carmen Sandiego helped the leader of the Free World out of a diplomatic jam.

“I had a pretty good education. But I learned a lot because Chelsea had seen ‘Sesame Street’ and ‘Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego,”’ President Clinton said in July. “When I met the co-leaders of San Marino at the Olympics, I knew where it was because of Carmen Sandiego.”

Hopefully, he learned everything he needs to know, because after five years on the air, the popular geography quiz show ran its course.

But PBS already has lined up a replacement: Carmen herself, retooled and restocked with history trivia.

“Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego,” a history spinoff of the geography show, premiered last week and airs at 5 p.m. weekdays on Spokane’s KSPS-Channel 7. The program is set up as a game show with three middle school-age children answering questions about decades past for a chance to win a computer system, an encyclopedia or other highbrow prizes.

“We’re trying to recreate, if you will, what happened in geography,” said Jay Rayvid, one of the show’s two executive producers. “We often can shine a very powerful spotlight on educational concerns.”

The show, a co-production of PBS stations WQED in Pittsburgh and WGBH in Boston, blends history and pop culture in a quiz-show format. Carmen Sandiego, the title character, is a computer-enhanced archvillain who steals historical artifacts that contestants recover by correctly answering questions.

The set has been changed from a 1940s detective office to a spaceship, and figures making cameo appearances range from Abraham Lincoln to Elvis.

“Older people may say pop culture is ‘history lite.’ But our audience is 12 years old,” said Rayvid, whose producing credits at WQED include such PBS staples as “Once Upon a Classic” and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

The question writers work with the Encyclopaedia Britannica and a panel of history teachers. Unlike geography, a cut-and-dried subject with verifiable answers, history requires a thoughtful approach.

“It’s a heck of a job in history,” Rayvid said, “because history, by its nature, examines a time when males had all the roles, when various ethnic groups were shut out.”

One series of questions about World War II refers to the internment of Japanese-Americans in U.S. concentration camps.

“We forthrightly say, during World War II, Japanese-Americans who were very good people were put into camps against their will,” Rayvid said. “We try to deal with controversy in a very straightforward, educational way.”

Most of the old faces from the geography version of the show are gone, including host Greg Lee, who was replaced by Kevin Shinick. Actress Lynne Thigpen is back in her Emmy-nominated role as The Chief, instructing contestants on their assignments and acting out skits with clues to the answers.

This summer, 65 episodes were shot in two months, sometimes at the rate of four shows a day. And if the schedule wasn’t enough to prematurely age Shinick, the contestants were. The children at the buzzers were sharp - Rayvid calls them “brainiacs” - but they were in diapers when Boy George was a pop star.

“I see a giant need for a show like this,” Shinick said. “During the session, we asked the contestants to match people with occupations. Two matched George Bush with a game show host.”

Shinick said he often finds himself playing along, even while he tries to maintain an Alex Trebek-like posture of knowing all the answers. Sometimes, he even finds himself wedging his “Carmen Sandiego” knowledge into casual conversation.

“We’re sitting at dinner and I’m the guy saying, ‘Oh my God, baked beans - first canned in Maine!’ - and other things that nobody else cares about,” he said.

MEMO: “Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego” airs at 5 p.m. weekdays on Spokane’s KSPS-Channel 7.

This sidebar appeared with the story: JUST A FEW QUESTIONS Sample questions from an episode of “Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?”:

1. In 1951, what war was the United States involved in? A. The Korean War B. The Battle of Denmark C. The Vietnam War

2. In 1841, what opens in Philadelphia - the first ad agency or the first newspaper?

3. In what state did Tony the Tiger debut? A. Michigan B. Maine C. California

4. In 1985, who was president? A. Gerald Ford B. Jimmy Carter C. Ronald Reagan

5. Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire during a Pepsi commercial. A. True B. False

6. It’s 1922. What appears in the sky for the first time - The Goodyear Blimp or skywriting?

7. Mr. Magoo was once a spokesman for General Electric lights. A. True B. False

Answers: 1. A; 2. the first ad agency; 3. A; 4. C; 5. True; 6. skywriting; 7. true. The Associated Press

“Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego” airs at 5 p.m. weekdays on Spokane’s KSPS-Channel 7.

This sidebar appeared with the story: JUST A FEW QUESTIONS Sample questions from an episode of “Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?”:

1. In 1951, what war was the United States involved in? A. The Korean War B. The Battle of Denmark C. The Vietnam War

2. In 1841, what opens in Philadelphia - the first ad agency or the first newspaper?

3. In what state did Tony the Tiger debut? A. Michigan B. Maine C. California

4. In 1985, who was president? A. Gerald Ford B. Jimmy Carter C. Ronald Reagan

5. Michael Jackson’s hair caught on fire during a Pepsi commercial. A. True B. False

6. It’s 1922. What appears in the sky for the first time - The Goodyear Blimp or skywriting?

7. Mr. Magoo was once a spokesman for General Electric lights. A. True B. False

Answers: 1. A; 2. the first ad agency; 3. A; 4. C; 5. True; 6. skywriting; 7. true. The Associated Press

 
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