This story has been brought to you by the letter S and the numbers 15
and 40. (Or, as the Count might say in his adorable Transylvanian
accent, "fivteen and forrrty-HA, HA, HA!") The S, as anyone who has
ever watched television can deduce by now, stands for Sesame Street.
The 40 is almost as easy: this year marks the 40th anniversary of sunny
days, friendly neighbors and the fuzzy creatures who live on that
street where the air is sweet. If you haven't watched recently with
your children or grandchildren, you'll be relieved to know that
impending middle age hasn't wrinkled Sesame Street all that much. Big
Bird still waddles, Cookie Monster still goes on his sugar binges and
Ernie still wakes up Bert at all hours with questions (none of them,
mercifully, about the nature of their relationship). In a world where
cultural touchstones are dropping faster than the Mets in
September-sorry, Guiding Light fans-the endurance of Sesame Street is
nothing short of a miracle.
Which brings us to that second number of the day: 15. That,
shockingly, is where Nielsen says Sesame Street ranks among the top
children's shows on the air. Some months, it does even worse. Ask a
preschooler who her favorite TV character is, and chances are she'll
say Dora, Curious George or, heaven help us, SpongeBob. We know it
doesn't seem nice to point out that the granddaddy of children's
television is regularly beaten up by a girl who talks to her backpack,
but these are desperate times. The Children's Television Workshop (now
called Sesame Workshop) produces only 26 episodes a year now, down from
a high of 130. The workshop itself recently announced it was laying off
20 percent of its staff as the recession continues to take a toll on
nonprofit arts organizations. But Sesame Street is no ordinary
nonprofit. It is, arguably, the most important children's program in
the history of television. No show has affected the way we think about
education, parenting, childhood development and cultural diversity,
both in the United States and abroad, more than Big Bird and friends.
You might even say that Sesame Street changed the world, one letter at
a time. Don't believe us? Then let's imagine where we'd be if Sesame
Street never existed.
For one thing, television itself might be a
"vast wasteland." That was the phrase FCC chairman Newton Minow used to
describe the TV landscape in 1961, and children's TV was hardly exempt.
As recounted in Street Gang, a new book by TV journalist Michael Davis,
the show came about after Lloyd Morrisett, an experimental
psychologist, walked into his living room and found his 3-year-old
daughter mesmerized by the TV test pattern. He told that story at a
dinner party several weeks later and wondered aloud if children might
be able to learn something from the boob tube. It seems like a crazy
question in our Baby Einstein world, but back then, to paraphrase
Donald Rumsfeld, we didn't know what we didn't know. When Sesame Street
arrived, scientists were just discovering that our brains were not
fully formed at birth and could be affected by early experiences. Head
Start began in 1965, in part, out of that revelation. "Educators were
virtually ignoring the intellect of preschool children," says Joan Ganz
Cooney, who threw that dinner party and has been the show's visionary
since the beginning. Children would eat up the ABCs before
kindergarten, Cooney believed, especially if a wacky puppet ate up
alphabet-shaped cookies along with them. The Department of Education
was skeptical. Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers, though
age-appropriate, had not become must-see TV; Bozo and Romper Room
(which ended each show with the hostess pretending she could see
children at home through a magic mirror that was obviously fake)
presented dumbed-down fun. But the government agreed to contribute half
of the original $8 million budget to launch Sesame Street. "It was a
speculative leap," Morrisett says.
The results were pretty
immediate. The first season in 1969 set out to teach children to count
from one to 10, but it became clear that kids as young as 2 could make
it to 20. (The show now hits 100, counting by tens.) That rookie year
also yielded three Emmys, a Peabody Award, a front-page rave from The
New York Times and one especially noteworthy piece of fan mail: "The
many children and families now benefiting from 'Sesame Street' are
participants in one of the most promising experiments in the history of
that medium. The Children's Television Workshop certainly deserves the
high praise it has been getting from young and old alike in every
corner of the nation. This administration is enthusiastically committed
to opening up opportunities for every youngster, particularly during
his first five years of life, and is pleased to be among the sponsors
of your distinguished program. Sincerely, Richard Nixon."
most impressive feedback, however, came from the kids themselves-or at
least from their test scores. No show to this day has probed its
effects on kids as thoroughly as Sesame Street, which plans to spend
more than $770,000 in 2009 on its department of education and research.
When people think of Sesame Street as the essence of educational
television, what they don't realize is how much the show has educated
the educators. "Before Sesame Street, kindergartens taught very
little," says Cooney, "and suddenly masses of children were coming in
knowing letters and numbers." Independent research found that children
who regularly watch Sesame Street gained more than nonviewers on tests
of letter and number recognition, vocabulary and early math skills. One
study, in 2001, revealed that the show's positive effects on reading
and achievement lasted through high school. "It totally changed
parental thinking about television," says Daniel Anderson, a
psychologist at the University of Massachusetts.
But the show was
never just about improving test scores. Perhaps the most radical part
of the Sesame DNA has always been its social activism. From the start,
Sesame targeted lower-income, urban kids-the ones who lived on streets
with garbage cans sitting in front of their rowhouse apartments. The
show arrived on the heels of riots in Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland
and Chicago, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Chester
Pierce, a Harvard professor who founded the Black Psychiatrists of
America, was one of the show's original advisers, and he was acutely
aware of the racism his 3-year-old daughter would face in that hostile
time. "It was intentional from the beginning to show different races
living together," says David Kleeman, executive director of the
American Center for Children and Media. "They were very conscious of
the modeling that kids and parents would take away from that."
1969, that was still a radical notion in some corners of the country.
Here was a TV show putting African-Americans on a level playing field
with white characters, showing them not as servants or entertainers,
but as equals. (Though it should be noted that when the show premiered,
some African-Americans took offense to Oscar the Grouch, who accepts
his poverty rather than fighting against it, as a demeaning stand-in
for inner-city blacks.) An integrated program aimed at impressionable
children was too much for the good people of Mississippi. The state's
commission for educational television banned the show in May 1970.
Cooney called it "a tragedy for both the white and black children of
Mississippi," and news reports saw her outrage and raised it. The state
finally reversed itself, 22 days later. When you think about what the
world might have looked like without Sesame, you can't dismiss the
impact of putting Gordon and Susan into America's living rooms. Is it
too much of a stretch to claim that the man in the White House might
not be there without Sesame Street? "I like to think," Cooney says,
"that we had something to do with Obama's election."
impact has been as profound overseas. Sesame Street is now exported to
16 countries and regions-places such as the Palestinian territories,
Kosovo and Bangladesh, where the message of tolerance can be in short
supply. In South Africa, where as recently as 2008 the president
insisted that HIV does not cause AIDS, the show features a
ginger-colored, HIV-positive Muppet. The South African Sesame is also
now produced in 12 of the country's official languages.
show's we-are-the-world agenda doesn't always produce friendly
neighbors. In 1998, a Middle East version was launched, co-produced by
Israelis and Palestinians. The Israeli and Palestinian Muppets lived on
different streets, but they would sometimes visit each other to play.
Israeli Muppets could appear in Palestinian territory, but not without
being invited. But the intifada made the notion of coexistence and
cooperation politically untenable and it was canceled. The show
returned in 2006, but now there are separate versions produced for
Israel and the Palestinian territories. The Palestinian one no longer
features Jews at all.
The tough topics aren't only political.
Following the attacks of 9/11, the 33rd-season premiere found Elmo
struggling to deal with his fear after he sees a grease fire break out
at a lunch counter. He's reassured after he visits with real-life
firefighters in Harlem. With that storyline, Sesame Street did more to
acknowledge its audience's unsettled feelings than many adult shows
did, even some set in Manhattan, including Friends and Sex and the
City. In 1982, Will Lee, the man who played Mr. Hooper, died suddenly
of a heart attack. The show decided to tackle the issue of death with
an episode on Big Bird's distress and confusion over losing his friend.
Children with illnesses and conditions such as Down syndrome are also
regularly included. "For many children, the first place they may see a
ballet may be on Sesame Street," said Rosemarie Truglio, vice president
of education and research for Sesame Workshop, in a book about the
show. "Moreover, it may be the only place where they see a ballet
performed by a girl in a wheelchair."
Not everyone thinks that
Sesame Street is doing right by kids. Latino groups have criticized it
for not having a Hispanic character in its early years. The show only
introduced a major female Muppet in 1992. (Prairie Dawn was too
annoying to count as a role model.) It has also been criticized by
Ralph Nader and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood for
selling out its characters in too many licensing deals. Some of its
interactive software products have been panned by Children's Technology
There is no question that Sesame has provoked some
critics to chastise it for getting a little too attached to the letters
P and C. After the show launched an obesity-awareness campaign called
Healthy Habits for Life, one particular Muppet needed to get with the
program. So in 2005, Cookie Monster began to sing about cookies being
"sometimes" food. Parents, some of whom wrongly believed that Cookie
was going to become a health-food nut, started a preschool food fight.
It turns out that Cookie still eats cookies in his typically frenzied
fashion. "But the lesson was, this show is important," says executive
producer Carol-Lynn Parente. "Don't mess with it."
impossible, of course. As Nicole Kidman might say about Botox, no
40-year-old looks young without a few touch-ups. (Cosmetic case in
point: in the first season, Oscar was a particularly unattractive shade
of orange.) Sesame Workshop is focusing a lot of energy on the digital
universe. It recently launched a new Web site featuring a huge library
of free video clips, both recent ones and classics. It also offers a
series of podcasts that parentscan download to their phones to show
their kids later, like when they're stuck in a long line at the grocery
store. So in that sense, Sesame Street is no longer changing the world
as much as trying to keep up with the world's changes. "We need to
continuously reinvent or experiment," says CEO Gary Knell, "or else we
are going to be dead."
Could that really happen-could Big Bird
follow Mr. Hooper into the big playground in the sky? Maybe it's wrong
to even worry about that. The granddaddy of them all doesn't have to
survive for the breed to prosper; if that were true, people would still
be driving Edsels. Children's programs are in more places than ever.
But only a tiny handful, such as Blue's Clues or the new PBS show Super
Why!, make any real attempt to conduct research like Sesame Workshop,
not to mention influence the way the world thinks. If we agree that
Sesame Street has changed our society, and many others, for the better,
if we agree that we still need messages of open-mindedness and if we
agree that it is still rare to find an educational television show that
parents and children can enjoy watching together, then we have to hope
that our furry gang will live on to greet the next generation of
children. Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street? Of course. The
more important question now is: can you tell me if Sesame Street will
continue to get to us?