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PBS makes splash with "Sandiego'

A roguish band of thieves steals some of the world's great landmarks. Some bright kid detectives hit the trail. The chase is on, all to the strains of a cappella music.

Sound a little like a Steven Spielberg flick?

Instead, it's television _ and the subject is geography.

You remember geography. Once widely taught, the study of places and people largely ended some years ago, and millions of kids grew up with only the vaguest notion of where in the world anything was.

With Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, PBS has produced a funny, frenetic, half-hour of weekday television on a subject that often has been considered boring even by teachers. Locally, the show airs Monday through Friday at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

"I'm kind of surprised at how well it's been accepted," said Kate Taylor, co-executive producer of the show at Boston's WGBH-TV. "It's been embraced by the educational community, even though it was not designed as a classroom tool."

Adds Greg Lee, the show's host: "We don't want to teach kids geography. We want to motivate them to learn about the world."

On the air since September, the program appears to be catching on not only with kids but with their parents and teachers. It even has propelled the career of "Rockapella" the a cappella quartet that sings and acts through the show.

Taylor said PBS began developing the program several years ago, even before the National Geographic Society's report on Geographic Literacy in America found one in four adults couldn't locate the Pacific Ocean on a world map.

In addition to helping youngsters appreciate geography, the producers had another goal: reaching and holding on to children who otherwise would abandon public television after outgrowing Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers.

"It's sort of like a game show, sitcom and mystery all rolled into one," said Lee, who got his start in kids' television with the Nickelodeon channel.

The detective-contestants _ sixth- and seventh-graders _ must solve a daily caper. A landmark of some sort has been lifted, perhaps the Eiffel Tower or maybe the Alaskan pipeline or the Great Pyramid.

The thief is one of master criminal Carmen Sandiego's nefarious cartoon gang. It might be foul-smelling Top Grunge, smarmy Vic the Slick or mechanical villain RoboCrook.

The gumshoes must track the crook by deciphering clues during a Jeopardy-like quiz. But not just any clues.

"We have spiders falling out, rocks coming through windows, people dying in front of me, " Lee said, not to mention other clues served up by disembodied hands, psychic valley girls and rap-singing grandmothers.

The craziness of the Carmen Sandiego hunt is interrupted only by Lee's amusing visits with his irascible boss, "The Chief," played by Lynne Thigpen. Her temperamental impatience is matched only by her fierce determination to bring her longtime nemesis Sandiego to justice once and for all.

Taylor said PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have promised to continue funding for the show, but need at least two corporate underwriters. No new episodes are planned until March.