The trailblazing children’s TV show enters middle age with bold changes aimed at keeping it at the top.
Sesame Street. After 35 years, nearly every man, woman and child in the country can tell you how to get there. Sesame Workshop President and CEO Gary Knell hopes that, someday, the same will be true for people all over the world. With the trendsetting educational TV show now airing in some 75 countries, Knell and his team are well on the way to that goal.
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Knell has been at the helm of Sesame Workshop, the not-for-profit organization responsible for Sesame Street, Dragon Tales and Sagwa: The Chinese Siamese Cat, for nearly five years. Described by some as a visionary, Knell took the job looking to make some positive changes. While Sesame Street was still a front-runner in children’s educational TV, the show had been slipping a bit in the ratings.
“The fact that Sesame Street has won 91 Emmys doesn’t mean anything to a 3-year-old,” he notes. So Knell looked within, re-examining Sesame Street’s winning format and making adjustments to assure the program’s continued prominence in a children’s TV landscape that has changed dramatically over the last three decades.
Open Sesame …
Once upon a time, there were very few educational and entertaining children’s TV programs. Captain Kangaroo and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood were the first shows in that genre, notes Ranny Levy, the founder and president of the Coalition for Quality Children’s Media – KIDS FIRST! Yet even these wonderful programs were not designed to give very young children an early education that would help prepare them for school. Children were also watching cartoons, many of which, Levy reminds us, were actually intended for adults.
Children’s Television Workshop, later renamed Sesame Workshop, entered the scene in 1968. Then-Executive-Director Joan Ganz Cooney believed that TV had the potential to teach children, a radical thought at the time, Knell says.
“Sesame Street was developed to equalize the playing field,” he says. “The country was coming out of the Civil Rights Movement, and the program was to serve children in economically distressed households.”
With the goal of helping underprivileged and minority children become better prepared for school, Sesame Street’s first experimental season aired in 1969. It was an instant phenomenon.
Caroll Spinney, the actor/puppeteer who has played Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since day one, knew the show’s creators were on to something different.
tops: 193.5pt">“We’d been seeing years and years of children’s shows where the host would say, ‘Hi boys and girls! Oh, we’re going to have so much fun today!’” he recalls. “When I saw the first Sesame Street show, a man is standing on the street and he says, ‘Hey, how are you doing? I’m Gordon and I live on Sesame Street. It’s not like any street you’ve ever seen.’ I thought, good, we don’t have to talk down to children. We’re treating them like people.”
The show did a lot more than that. Children were learning from Sesame Street, reciting the alphabet or identifying letters, numbers and colors at ages as young as 2. Daniel Anderson, a psychologist who has researched children’s TV viewing since the early ’70s, points out that many studies have confirmed that children who regularly watch Sesame Street are, indeed, better prepared for school. One study of high school students revealed that the more the students had watched Sesame Street as youngsters, the better they fared academically and socially.
“What we need to recognize is that Sesame Street was really the first show that persuaded advocates, policy-makers, teachers and parents that TV could be an educational resource,” says Amy Jordan, a senior researcher at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania who studies how media policy shapes children’s programming.
Jordan also praises Sesame Street for acknowledging that children develop socially and physically, as well as academically. “They have always been concerned with how children get along socially, what their fears are, as well as introducing the letter A and the number 3,” she notes.
From the start, Sesame Street also aimed to appeal to parents. Humorous parodies of pop-culture encouraged parents to watch along with their children. This was intentional, Knell explains, because “the interchange that happens between parent and child helps reinforce learning.”
tops: 193.5pt">A Competitive Climate
Fast-forward 35 years, and much has changed. Today, children have more media choices than ever before.
“It’s amazing to think of the changes in the children’s television landscape,” says Knell. “When Sesame Street first started, there was no cable TV and basically three major channels.” Today, Knell says, Sesame Street faces 22 direct competitors.
Lanie Richberger, Sesame Workshop’s vice president of ratings and trends, asserts that if you counted every program that has preschool appeal, you’d be looking at more than 140 programs, with new shows cropping up regularly.
Even so, Sesame Street has long remained in the top 10 of shows for preschoolers, according to Nielsen Media Research. Currently, after some broad format changes, Sesame Street is back in the top five, with more than 8 million U.S. viewers tuning in every week.
Anderson and Levy both point out that many producers of other programs for preschoolers got their start at Sesame Workshop. Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer, for example, are staffed with people who migrated from Sesame Workshop.
“Because their training at the Workshop was so good,” Anderson observes, “we have better children’s shows. And a little competition can help Sesame Street stay on the edge.”
Sesame Street Turns 35: Part 1 - Part 2 - Part 3
Jean Sheff is an editor for United Parenting Publications and a cookie monster in her own right.