Children’s Television Workshop Sets Sights on Literacy : Public TV: ‘Ghostwriter’ targets third- and fourth-graders, 40% of whom are said to lack basic reading skills. The series will debut in 1992.


The Children’s Television Workshop, the company that makes “Sesame Street,” is planning to begin production next month on an unusual new series that will use plot twists in mystery programs to promote literacy.

Called “Ghostwriter” and set to be broadcast on public-television stations beginning in September, 1992, the series will feature the adventures of six children, aged 10 to 13, as they attempt to solve mysteries.

Their secret assistant is a ghost who only communicates through writing.


“We really wanted to create a concept in which we could integrate reading and writing into the plot, so it was not like an educational program where we had to stop and have a ‘reading moment,’ ” said executive producer Elizabeth Nealon.

In “Ghostwriter,” the reading comes in through the communications of the ghost. “He or she might grab letters on a billboard and give (the children) a message, or (the ghost) might scramble letters from an advertisement on the side of a bus,” Nealon said. “Only the kids can see the message.”

“Ghostwriter” is targeted to third- and fourth-graders, 40% of whom lack basic reading skills, Children’s Television Workshop President David Britt said in a news release.

The percentage of children with reading problems in this age group mirrors the number of adults--about two in five--who are functionally illiterate, Britt said.

Along with the series, the Children’s Television Workshop plans to produce a magazine and a syndicated newspaper column that will feature games, a comic strip and writing by children. “Ghostwriter” will also sponsor two writing contests, and teachers will receive materials with which they can incorporate the program into their classroom activities.

On Wednesday, Nike Inc., donated $5 million to the program, a gift that Nealon said enabled production to begin in June.


But despite Nike’s gift--which Children’s Television Workshop officials said is the largest corporate grant ever given to a children’s educational television project--”Ghostwriter” will begin production significantly short of funds.

The program’s 40 half-hour episodes and outreach program are expected to cost more than $20 million.

In addition to the Nike grant, “Ghostwriter” has received $10 million from other sources, including the Public Broadcasting Service and the Children’s Television Workshop itself.

But those gifts leave the project at least $5 million short--at a time when the faltering economy has considerably slowed corporate grants and individual donations to public television.

“We don’t have it all but we have enough to get started,” said Elizabeth Martin, director of media relations for the Children’s Television Workshop. “We feel confident that before we go on the air in 1992 we’ll have the rest of the funds in place.”

Martin said that the organization has appealed to the federal government as well as to private foundations and corporations for funding.