square one

Square One Television

Square One Television (sometimes referred to as Square One) was a children's television show produced by the Children's Television Workshop to teach mathematics and abstract mathematical concepts to young viewers.

Created and broadcast by PBS in the United States from 1987 to 1994, the show was intended to address the so-called "math crisis" among American schoolchildren. It has since been rated TV-Y7. The show was revived for the 1995-1996 PBS season as a teacher instruction program, Square One TV Math Talk.

Square One was also shown on the U.S. cable television channel Noggin in syndication beginning in 1999, but was removed from its lineup along with other Children's Television Workshop shows on May 26, 2003.


Square One comprised short sketches that introduced and applied concepts in mathematics such as counting, combinatorics, vulgar fractions, estimation, probability, and geometry. The sketches featured regular characters and were mainly parodies of pop culture icons or popular television shows:

  • Music videos, similar to ones seen on MTV, used a particular subject in mathematics and taught the subject through song, including:

*"Infinity" a song about the concept of infinity performed by The Jets.
*"The Mathematics of Love" a song about numbers and Roman numerals.
*"Count Each Fraction of Each Second We're Apart," a country song about fractions performed by The Judds.
*"Nine, Nine, Nine," a country music song demonstrating that the digital root of a multiple of 9 is 9,
*"Angle Dance," a song about obtuse and acute angles.
*"8% of My Love," a song about percentages, reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's style.
*"Less Than Zero," a song about negative numbers
*"Patterns", about patterns that can be detected in society, performed by "Weird Al" Yankovic.
*"Rules of Thumb," a song about making estimations from well-known facts, performed by Kid 'n Play.
*"Sign of the Times," a salsa song about using the letter X for multiplication.
*"Wanna Be," a song about needing to know math to be productive, performed by Bobby McFerrin.
*"Ghost of a Chance," a Thriller parody about a pizza boy gambling on his life when he delivers to a haunted house.

  • Mathman, a parody of Pac-Man, helped viewers learn to recognize common mistakes while solving math problems, such as forgetting to carry a digit, or making errors with negative numbers. A Blue Tornado character named "Mr. Glitch" was Mathman's Enemy.
  • Pauline's Perilous Pyramid taught addition and subtraction with negative and positive numbers. It is reminiscent of Q*bert, except the pyramid is numbered with positive and negative numbers. Each time she jumped on a square, that number was added to her score. Her goal was to reach the top of the pyramid and keep her score between +25 and -25. She also was given one "zapper" which allowed her to change a positive to a negative or vice versa.
  • Mathnet (starring Beverly Leech as Kate Monday, later Toni DiBuono as Pat Tuesday and Joe Howard as George Frankly), a parody of Dragnet, was distinguished by its quirky scripts and guest stars. Each episode of Square One ended with a Mathnet segment, and each Mathnet story spanned five episodes. Since Square One was on weekdays, this meant that the case was introduced on Monday, worked on throughout the week, and finally brought to a conclusion on Friday. On a few occasions, all five segments of a story were aired back-to-back in prime-time specials on PBS.
  • Late Afternoon with David Numberman, a parody of Late Night with David Letterman.
  • Mathcourt, a parody of The People's Court and Perry Mason, applied Mathematics to solve cases.
  • General Mathpital, a parody of General Hospital where a team of "doctors" would work together to "operate" on a mathematical problem until the problem is fixed.
  • Dirk Niblick of the Math Brigade, an original idea, was distinguished from most of the other sketches in that it was animated. Dirk would often use his mathematical skills to help his friends and neighbors in everyday situations.
  • Zook & Alison, an animated segment featured in later seasons. In each episode, Uncle Wilt took some sort of trip to Earth without securing permission from his sister (whereupon she always cried, "FIND UNCLE WILT!") and Zook and Alison had to use mathematics to locate him and bring him home. In one episode they triangulate his location on a map using the clue that Wilt is "equidistant from Venice, Milan, and Florence." The segment was unique in that the characters and scenery were not colored in, but were multi-colored outlines against a solid black background.
  • FAX HEADFUL, a computer animated addition to the final season, and a sendup of Max Headroom. FAX's monologues typically involved statistics and estimation, such as his musing on population density, or average yearly donut consumption.
  • Nobody's Inn, a parody of Fawlty Towers. The main running gag is when someone tries to call the hotel, the owner will reply with "Nobody's Inn!", but the caller will mistakenly think he's saying "Nobody's in" to which the caller then says they'll call back later (thinking literally no one is at the hotel) and hang up.
  • A segment called Oops!, in which someone would make an erroneous calculation or computation, after which would be shown a clip of a disaster from an old movie. The person would say "Oops" and correct the error. Then the announcer would say "Oops! has been brought to you by erasers. Don't make a mistake without one."
  • Math-related magic tricks and performances by Harry Blackstone, Jr. Unlike most magic shows however, Blackstone does explain later how the trick works.
  • Several parodies of game shows:
  • Several mini-game shows using actual child contestants and awarding small prizes:
    • Piece of the Pie, a survey-based game show similar to Family Feud, using pie charts and teaching percentages;
    • Close Call, a game show about estimation, using "how many beans are in this big jar" type of questions, and bearing a similarity to The Price is Right.
    • Triple Play, a show teaching addition and multiplication;
    • But Who's Adding (Multiplying)?;
    • Square One Squares, a tic-tac-toe game similar to Tic-Tac-Dough and Hollywood Squares; this later evolved into Square One Challenge, bearing a similarity to To Tell the Truth.

University of Michigan athletics

The number of references to the Michigan Wolverines that appeared in the show leaves little doubt that the people behind the show counted fans of the school among their ranks. In fact, executive producer David Connell and head writer Jim Thurman were both Michigan graduates.

  • The show would occasionally feature a segment about estimation in which a Michigan cheerleader would place a small object (e.g., a hamburger, a playing card, or a ping pong ball) in the corner of the playing field of Michigan Stadium. The viewer was then asked to estimate how many of the same object it would take to fill (or cover the playing field of) the stadium.
  • Mathman was a walking green head in a Wolverines football helmet.
  • In one Dirk Niblick segment, his mother posed a riddle about probability which mentioned a drawer full of maize and blue socks (Michigan's team colors are maize and blue).
  • Another Dirk Niblick episode called "Do Not Fold, Spindle or Tape" had Dirk's old college friend Wrongway wearing a GO BLUE! shirt backwards. "GO BLUE!" is a phrase frequently used by Michigan athletics.
  • In a number of Dirk Niblick mini-segments where he conversed with his mother on the phone, her "speech" was the University of Michigan's fight song.
  • Among other sightings of the Michigan logo, a member of a ship's crew during an episode of Mathnet set in Monterey, California, wore a cap commemorating Michigan's 1989 Final Four appearance in NCAA men's basketball.
  • There were also a number of joking references to Michigan's longstanding cross-state rivalry with Michigan State University. Two examples, both from Mathnet, included a villain saying that he had flunked out of the University of Michigan and "had to finish at Michigan State," and another villain having attended "Michigan Agricultural College" (MSU's original name) in "West Lansing."
  • Another episode of Mathnet involved the kidnapping of a rockstar for a ransom to rent the University of Michigan Marching Band to play a march written by the kidnappers.
  • In another episode of Mathnet, a reference was made reflecting the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State University. While examining a list of bank accounts that had been robbed, the Ohio State Alumni fund was noted as having lost $136. When Kate Monday states, "At least they didn't get much," George Frankly replies, "What do you mean? They cleaned the whole thing out!"

Connections to other media

  • Cartoonist Jim Jinkins, popular for his show Doug, did animated shorts for the show.
  • David Yazbek was a frequent writer during the first season. Yazbek is best known for writing the theme songs to Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? and Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?. He later wrote the scores for the Broadway shows The Full Monty and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
  • A special version of the third PBS ident, with the P-heads in a dark purple color, was used at the end of the first episode of Square One TV in the late 80s, where the P head and letters multiplied and went into the distance with the vocals "And on, and on, and on..." This was to tie in with the song "Infinity," which was featured in that particular episode.

Sources of funding

Among the funders of Square One were

The National Science Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were the only permanent funders for Square One. IBM funded the show for season 1 only, and Viewers Like You (Public Television Viewers) funded the show for seasons 1 and 2 only.

External links

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