The trailblazing children’s TV show enters middle age with bold changes aimed at keeping it at the top.
The Sesame Workshop Model
When it comes to how Sesame Street has managed to endure the expansion in children’s TV programming over the years, universal credit is given to the brilliance of the “Sesame Workshop Model.” That is, its commitment to create new, curriculum-based, research-driven, kid-tested programs every year.
Under this model, “a curriculum seminar is held each season, so the entire staff can access outside information from leading academic researchers and educators on the current critical needs of children,” says Anna Housley-Juster, the Workshop’s assistant content director. Once the curriculum is written, a show is produced and then tested with an audience of children to ensure that educational, entertainment and engagement goals have been met with seamless integration.
“The beauty is that we are not afraid to fail,” Housley-Juster says. “If a message does not come across, we make changes. We are constantly raising the bar.”
“They don’t put any content on without really doing some amazing checks,” confirms Spinney. “This is one of the reasons why Sesame Street is superior to a lot of other shows for children.”
Another is that Sesame Street hasn’t shied away from tough issues. It has dealt with death, marriage, birth and adoption. Having a body of research at their fingertips has also enabled the show’s creators to react to unexpected needs. For example, equipped with previous research on childhood fear and loss, Sesame Street quickly produced four shows to help kids cope after 9/11.
For all of its success over the years, Sesame Street has also been criticized, both for the pacing of the show and its licensing and merchandising programs.
pt">For years, one of the show’s hallmarks was its use of short, almost rapid-fire segments that drilled kids in the alphabet and numbers, while entertaining them.
“Researchers, noting children’s attraction to commercials and catchy jingles, devised short segments for the original program,” Housley-Juster explains. The show would open with a story (a conflict or problem involving the show’s main characters), cut to an insert (usually an educational lesson), then back to the story, then on to another insert – all in repetitive 30/60/90-second segments, she says.
pt">In the years that followed, some educators argued that short segments, like those shown on Sesame Street, actually shortened children’s attention spans. But others believed that repetition was a sure way to teach ABCs and 123s.
pt">“No one knew anything back then,” says Anderson. TV was a new teaching medium. To complicate matters, Sesame Street itself became more complex with many more characters. And, eventually, years of testing suggested that kids watching the show’s fragmented story line, especially very young children, were not getting the complete story or were losing some of what it had to teach.
Some researchers and educators have also objected to the prominent merchandising of the show and its characters. But others have defended the program’s need to compete in the marketplace.
“Sesame Street needs to have that revenue stream to support programming,” says Jordan, who adds that children’s educational TV deserves more government support.
Knell points out that some 60 percent of the revenue raised through these efforts directly supports programming. And, according to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study on children and the electronic media, parents are more concerned with the quality of the content than the time their children spend using media. If buying a Sesame Street toy or CD-ROM has contributed to keeping programming standards high, generally, parents aren’t complaining.
Jean Sheff is an editor for United Parenting Publications and a cookie monster in her own right.