When Kids Took a Bite from PBS's Newton's Apple

PBS
PBS

For the past half-century, PBS programs have provided rudimentary, but crucial, lessons about grammar and storytelling for their pint-sized viewers. If Sesame Street taught kids the alphabet, Reading Rainbow got them thinking in complete sentences.

Eventually, kids graduated to middle school and started to expand their curiosity. From 1983 to 1998, another PBS program titled Newton’s Apple was able to satisfy it.

The half-hour series anticipated a lot of question-and-answer formats that are still popular today, including Mental Floss’s own Big Questions installments. Each week, host Ira Flatow would select a query sent in by a viewer or provided by a member of the studio audience: What is fiber optics? How much of the body is fat? What makes our ears pop? Why do peeled onions make us cry? In live-to-tape or pre-recorded segments, Flatow would delve into the topic, offering demonstrations and expert opinions that illustrated the show’s explanations.

Flatow, a former science reporter for NPR, drew comparisons to comedian Groucho Marx and often displayed a participatory bent, swimming with dolphins or gliding up in a hot air balloon. Celebrities would also make the rounds: Betty White once helped explain why cats purr. If there was a question or concept that ever puzzled a kid, Newton’s Apple had probably offered up an explanation.

“Despite the fact that we try to make science interesting and amusing, I do not intend to allow Newton's Apple to become the That's Incredible of PBS,” Flatow said in 1983, referring to the NBC info-tainment show. “My role as a kind of gatekeeper is to make sure that every show makes good, sound, scientific points. It may be fun, but it'll be the truth.”

Questions were often selected based on how often they recurred in viewer mail and whether the resulting demonstration would make for compelling television. Kids asked a lot of questions about dinosaurs, while adults were more curious about health and medicine. (The most popular question: Why is the sky blue?) Roughly half of the questions came from viewers; the other half were generated by staffers.

Flatow left the series in 1987 and was replaced by David Heil, the associate director of the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, following a national talent search. He made his debut by jumping out of an airplane without a parachute. (Fortunately, it was a tandem jump.)

Produced by KTCA, PBS's Minneapolis affiliate, Newton's Apple was supported by the DuPont corporation for most of its run. When that relationship ended in 1990, the show was effectively canceled, only to be revived for another eight seasons when the 3M company agreed to subsidize some of the production costs.

While the show was used as a teaching aid in up to 10 percent of all middle school classrooms in America (PBS issued information packets to be paired with the broadcasts), the secret of its 16 years on the air was that it was watched primarily by older viewers.

In 1992, the Los Angeles Times reported that 80 percent of the show’s audience was 18 years of age or older. The reason, producers said, was that a lot of people stopped being invested in science as part of their school curriculum in junior high and didn't know where else to turn to for answers to the burning questions they had (this was pre-Google, after all). For its role as a remedial learning tool, Newton’s Apple won a Daytime Emmy in 1989 for Outstanding Children’s Series. Unfortunately, there was no category for Outstanding Children's Series Viewed Mostly by Adults.

Good Fortune: The Story of Miss Cleo's $1 Billion Psychic Empire

The woman sat behind a table, tarot cards in front of her, a turban wrapped tightly around her head. In Jamaican-accented patois, she invited viewers to benefit from her gift of second sight. “Call me now,” Miss Cleo said, and she would reveal all.

Mostly, respondents wanted to know if a lover was cheating on them, though there was no limit to Miss Cleo's divinity. No question was too profound. She could speak with as much wisdom about concerns over financial choices as she could sibling rivalries. Her only challenge was time: Miss Cleo could connect with only a fraction of the people looking for her spiritual guidance, leaving callers in the hands of other (potentially psychically-unqualified) operators.

Still, Miss Cleo became synonymous with psychic phenomena, a way to consult with a medium without getting off your living room couch. From 1997 to 2002, she was a virtually inescapable presence on television—the embodiment of a carnival stereotype that annoyed native Jamaicans, who bristled at her exaggerated accent. It was nonetheless effective: Roughly 6 million calls came in to Miss Cleo over a three-year period, with $1 billion in telephone charges assessed.

Not long after, the companies behind Miss Cleo would be forced to give half of that back amidst charges that they had misled consumers. Despite being a cog in the machine, Miss Cleo herself was vilified. Of the $24 million her hotline raked in monthly, she claimed to have earned just 24 cents a minute, or approximately $15 an hour.

Most people didn’t know she was born in Los Angeles, not in Jamaica; that her real name was Youree Dell Harris; and that her late-night infomercial promising psychic assistance was little more than performance art.

 

Harris may have been raised in California, but Miss Cleo was born in Seattle. While living in Washington in the 1990s, Harris tried her hand at playwrighting, authoring a play titled For Women Only under the name Ree Perris, which she performed at Seattle's Langston Hughes Performing Arts Center. In it, Harris wrote and portrayed a Jamaican woman named Cleo, a clear predecessor to the character that would later pop up in television ads.

After producing three plays, Harris left Seattle amid allegations that she had taken grant money from the Langston Hughes Advisory Council, leaving some of the cast and crew unpaid. (Harris later said she left Seattle due to wanting to distance herself from a bad relationship. She told colleagues she had bone cancer and was leaving the area but that they would be paid at a later date.) She ended up in Florida, where she responded to an ad seeking telephone operators. Harris taped a commercial in character as Cleo—the hotline added the “Miss”—for $1750 and then agreed to monitor a phone line for a set wage. Operators made between 14 and 24 cents a minute, she later said, and she was on the higher end.

Psychic premonitions can be difficult to validate, though Harris never claimed to be a medium. In her own words, she was from a “family of spooky people” and was well-versed in voodoo thanks to study under a Haitian teacher. The Psychic Readers Network and Access Resource Services, a set of sister companies that used workers sourced by a third party for their hotlines, recoiled at the word voodoo and declared her a psychic instead.

If Harris was the genuine article, many of her peers were not. As subcontractors who were not employed by the Psychic Readers Network or Access directly, some responded to ads for “phone actors” and claimed they were given a script from which to work. (Access later denied that operators used a script.) The objective, former "psychics" alleged, was to keep callers on the line for at least 15 minutes. Some customers, who were paying $4.99 a minute for their psychic readings, received phone bills of $300 or more.

When the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) began responding to complaints in 2002, it was not because Harris was portraying a character or because she may have not been demonstrably psychic. It was because the Psychic Readers Network and Access were accused of deceptive advertising. Miss Cleo would urge viewers to call a toll-free 800 number, where operators would then refer them to a paid 900 line to reach a psychic. Miss Cleo also pledged that the first three minutes were free. That was true, though those first three minutes were largely spent on hold.

When people began to dispute their phone charges, Psychic Readers Network and Access were alleged to have referred accounts to collection agencies. Even if a telephone carrier like AT&T canceled the charges, customers would still find themselves subject to harassment over unpaid debt.

Individual states like Missouri and Florida sued or fined the companies, but it was the FTC that created the largest storm cloud. Of the $1 billion earned through the hotline, $500 million remained uncollected from stubborn or delinquent consumers. In a complaint and subsequent settlement, the FTC ordered those debts canceled and imposed a $5 million fine on the companies. Psychic Readers Network and Access did not admit to any wrongdoing.

As for Miss Cleo: Harris was only briefly named in the Florida lawsuit before she was dropped from it; the FTC acknowledged that spokespersons couldn’t be held liable for violations. But the association was enough, and newspaper reporters couldn’t resist the low-hanging fruit. Most headlines were a variation of, “Bet Miss Cleo didn’t see this one coming.”

 

Outed as a faux-Jamaican and with her Seattle past further damaging her reputation, Harris faded from the airwaves. Her fame, however, was persistent. She recorded a voice for a Grand Theft Auto: Vice City game for a character that strongly resembled her onscreen psychic. Private psychic sessions were also in demand, with Harris charging anywhere from $75 to $250 per person. Her Haitian-inspired powers of deduction, she said, were genuine.

Eventually, enough time passed for Miss Cleo to become a source of nostalgia. In 2014, General Mills hired her to endorse French Toast Crunch, a popular cereal from the 1990s that was returning to shelves. Following both the Grand Theft Auto and General Mills deals, Psychic Readers Network cried foul, initiating litigation claiming that the Miss Cleo character was their intellectual property and that Harris's use was a trademark and copyright violation. General Mills immediately pulled the ads. (The argument against Rockstar Games, which produced Grand Theft Auto, was late in coming: Psychic Readers Network brought the case in 2017, 15 years after the game’s original release. The lawsuit is ongoing.)

Unfortunately, Harris’s continued use of the image would shortly become irrelevant. She died in 2016 at age 53 following a bout with cancer. Obituaries identified her as “Miss Cleo” and related her longtime frustration at being associated with the FTC lawsuit. “According to some articles, I’m still in jail,” she told Vice in 2014. Instead, she was where she had always been: Behind a table, listening, and revealing all.

When 'Courage' Caused Controversy for Dan Rather

Kevin Winter, Getty Images
Kevin Winter, Getty Images

In early 1981, Dan Rather was profiled by a number of media outlets as he prepared to take over as news anchor of CBS Evening News that March. The venerable news program had been headlined by Walter Cronkite for the previous 19 years, with Cronkite typically signing off each broadcast by telling viewers, “And that’s the way it is.”

Speaking to journalists, Rather didn’t give any indication if or when he might adopt his own signature closing statement, a tradition in news exemplified by Cronkite, Edward R. Murrow (“Good night and good luck”), and Charles Osgood (“See you on the radio”), among others. But in one October 1981 interview, Rather did mention that one of his favorite words was courage.

“[Ernest] Hemingway thought that courage was grace under pressure,” Rather told The Boston Globe. “When it comes to courage, I have not been put to the test.”

Just five years later, Rather would find himself the focus of a situation that, while not necessarily requiring courageousness, tested his resolve in the face of public ridicule. It started when he concluded a summer newscast with a pithy send-off that was part self-help advice, part personal message, and somewhat confusing.

“And that’s the CBS Evening News for this summer-ending Labor Day,” he said. “Dan Rather reporting from New York.”

Rather paused, then added, “Courage. Good night.”

That an innocuous, two-syllable word like courage could cause such a stir is attributable in part to the landscape of the news media of the 1980s. In addition to newspapers, Americans got their information primarily from the three major networks: CBS, NBC, and ABC. Fox, which launched in 1986, didn’t offer primetime news programming; CNN, which debuted in 1980 and pioneered the 24-hour news cycle, didn’t hit its hard news stride until the 1990s (it was regularly referred to as the Chicken Noodle Network during its first decade on the air). As a result, the networks placed great emphasis on the approach and style of their news programming.

Contrasted against his counterparts—Tom Brokaw at NBC and Peter Jennings at ABC—Rather was considered a stern presence on television. The Rather “stare,” as one television critic put it, defied viewers to question the veracity of each report. Management urged Rather to lighten his tone, first by getting him to wear V-neck sweaters, then by interjecting misplaced quips into his reports. (“Ready, set, Gorbachev!” Rather declared before one segment on the then-Soviet Union leader.)

Still, an emphasis on human interest stories and audience loyalty kept the CBS Evening News on top of the ratings during the first few years of Rather’s tenure. The broadcast finished first among the three news programs for 200 straight weeks.

Then, in the summer of 1986, it fell behind. In the mercurial world of news, there was no one specific reason. Brokaw, whose program took the lead, was well-liked; but Rather bristled at suggestions of adopting a lighter tone and was adamant about returning to harder news.

When he came back from an August vacation in time for the Labor Day broadcast on September 1, 1986, he had decided to take a new approach to concluding the broadcast. “Courage” was added before Rather told viewers to have a good night. To some, it was peculiar. To media observers, it was a sharp departure from the kind of objectivity expected of journalists. Was Rather advising viewers to grow a backbone? Was he dismayed at the state of affairs? Others used it as fodder for comic takes in editorials.

Attempts to parse his use of the word went unaided by Rather himself, who cautioned people not to read into it. “Don’t overanalyze it,” he said. “There’s no deep, hidden meaning.” It was just a salutation he had used with friends for years and one that also happened to be one of his father’s favorite words. Rather used it to sign off on some of his radio broadcasts in the 1970s.

“If feels right to me and I think the audience will be comfortable with it,” he said.

CBS executives tried to talk him out of it. “I’m the only one who likes it,” Rather said of the internal response. Howard Stringer, a CBS Evening News producer who had just been named president of the CBS news division, said it was Rather’s “right” to close the broadcast however he liked, but stopped short of endorsing the habit.

Rather did it on Tuesday of that week, and again on Wednesday, but with a twist: Following a Bill Moyers report on the Texas-Mexico border, Rather said coraje, the Spanish word for courage. When that was met with derision, he labeled it an “ill-advised lark.”

Ultimately, Rather's sign off experiment was short-lived. It ended that Friday, with the anchor again wishing “courage” on his viewers. The following Monday, it was back to business as usual, with reports claiming that executives were finally able to convince the broadcaster to abandon his closing statement. September ended with the CBS Evening News again trailing the NBC Nightly News by one-half a ratings point.

Rather had the last word—of sorts—when he ended his tenure as the CBS Evening News anchor in March 2005. For his final broadcast, he looked into the camera and made one final statement. “And to each of you, courage,” he said.

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