Monday, December 4, 2023

Big Blue Marble: A Generation’s Introduction to the World

by G. Jack Urso 

Big Blue Marble is a 30-minute (actual runtime 26.5 minutes) children’s educational television program which ran from 1974 to 1983. Something of a cross between a news/information program and a reality show, Big Blue Marble showed children from different parts of the globe engaging in everyday activities as well as unique aspects of their culture. The series was produced by Alphaventure in cooperation with World Book Encyclopedia.

Theme song, from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

According to an Aug. 14, 1974, New York Times article, I.T.T. funded the series at US$3 million (approximately US$19,807,145.92 in 2023) and distributed free to local stations. An extraordinary expense; however, I.T.T. at the time was embroiled in a number of image-shattering scandals, including “alleged interference in foreign elections, its various antitrust problems and its reported efforts to enlist the Nixon Administration's help in certain of its business objectives,” according to the NY Times article.

Nevertheless, I.T.T.'s then-president Francis J. Dunleavy asserted, “had not been the headlines, there would still be the program . . . It is good, wholesome and worth being identified with.”

After a four-week trial run on 40 TV stations across the United States in May 1974, Big Blue Marble debuted in the fall on 100 television stations nationwide.

After the rollout in the United States in 1974, Big Blue Marble was offered to international markets beginning in 1975. Interestingly, I.T.T., in a rare move then or at any time, when offering the series to the three commercial networks and PBS, insisted commercials air before or after the program, not during. A condition, according to the aforementioned NY Times article, even PBS refused, which I find somewhat confusing since PBS didn’t air underwriting spots during a show. The apparent discrepancy, however, may be explained, as noted by Dunleavy, in that typical corporate sponsoring with PBS is simply to provide the underwriting and leave the entire production to PBS. I.T.T, however, wanted to leave its mark as more than just a corporate godfather.

“In public television you write out a check,” said Donleavy in the Times article, “The Big Blue Marble is our own.”

Also noteworthy, rather than “teach specific disciplines” the show’s point was simply to “increase a child's familiarity and curiosity about the world . . . There is no editorial point of view and no attempt to manipulate the minds of children,” reported Donleavy.

Big Blue Marble season one promotional spot.

Each episode consists of two profiles of children from different parts of the world, an occasional animated segment, and a promotional spot for the series computerized pen pal service connecting children across the globe with each other. Other regular features include a How-To segment, Fables from Around the World, and If Children Ruled the World, in which children and adults engage in roleplaying. Several feature-length TV movies were also produced and serialized over the course of several episodes.

Reportedly, the first 78 half-hour episodes of the series were produced in the first three years, between 1974 and 1977. The animation was produced by Ron Campbell Films, Inc., produced and directed by Ron Campbell and written by Cliff Roberts. Campbell is most noted for his work on the Beatle’s Saturday morning cartoon series and the film Yellow Submarine.

Big Blue Marble “Dear Pen Pals” promotional spot, 
from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

Schedules. Awards, and Releases

Typically scheduled on Saturday or Sunday mornings, I recall Big Blue Marble playing locally Saturdays at about 12 Noon. Just as the morning cartoon block was coming to an end. Reviewing some old 1970s TV Guides I have on hand reveals airtimes ranging from 9:30 AM and 12:30 PM on Saturdays to Sunday mornings at 11 AM to even Monday mornings at 7 AM. The Saturday morning runtimes opposite cartoons must have been a rating-killer, and were the show not completely funded by I.T.T. and offered for free, one wonders how long the series would have lasted. Nevertheless, the series ran for nine years, winning thirteen Emmy Awards including Best Children's Informational Series and Best Children's Entertainment Series, the George Foster Peabody Award, the New York International Film Festival Grand Prize, and over one hundred international festival prizes and awards.

Big Blue Marble Episode 1, from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.

Call it crass commercialization to assuage corporate guilt, and it is, but those awards don’t lie. Big Blue Marble rose above the control of its corporate underwriter who gave producers a mission and then entrusted them (including later Star Trek producer Rick Berman) to carry it out. In many respects, Big Blue Marble is a rare example of a successful partnership of artistic and commercial interests. A relic of its times, we’ll very likely not see its likes again.

The series’ animated mascot.
Of the 151 episodes, very few are publicly available. What few are available appear to be digital copies of VHS recordings released by C/F International, the former license holder of Big Blue Marble, which went out of business in 2008. I have found no DVD releases, not even bootlegs, though in fairness there is little commercial potential in the series. News/Information shows have very little repeat appeal; nevertheless, due to capturing a moment in time, and specifically of children and their families from around the world, the importance of the series as a research tool for history, sociology, fashion, language, and culture, cannot be stressed enough. For preservation purposes, a full collection on DVD and/or made available through streaming should be preserved in archives and broadcast museums.

For more information about this wonderful series on Aeolus 13 Umbra, please visit:

* Feature length TV movies

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1 comment:

  1. I think the 70's and 80's were a pivotal time for children's educational/social television, and not just sesame street. It is important to remember children's television, and the media focus on children, did not begin in the 21st century. Amazed at how much work went into these programs, which Aeolus documents. Thanks for your work on this subject.