The trailblazing children’s TV show enters middle age with bold changes aimed at keeping it at the top.
The Youngest Viewer
Joseph Mazzucca clutches his helium-filled Elmo balloon and snuggles into his dad’s shoulder. The youngest of five, the 17-month-old toddler is waiting for his family to finish their meal at a popular fast-food restaurant.
Does Joseph watch Sesame Street because he’s been influenced by his older brothers and sisters? “No,” the other four Mazzucca youngsters say, shaking their heads. “Joseph likes Sesame Street much more than any of the other kids ever did.
It’s his show,” says their mom, Stephanie.
As an under-age-2 viewer, he’s not alone. Across the dining room, 14-month-old Cole Kornbluth plays with his Elmo placemat. Cole is a big Sesame Street fan, and he loves Elmo’s voice, say his proud parents.
There is plenty of evidence that children are watching TV and using other media at significantly earlier ages, Anderson says. “Videos are being produced for babies,” he notes.
Without a doubt, technology has changed our children’s world. “We live in a media-entrenched society,” says Knell. “Kids are much more sophisticated because they’ve been exposed to so many different media choices.”
Yet the American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend TV for children under age 2. Is there something parents don’t know?
“The truth is, we don’t know how television affects children under age 2,” says Anderson. “There are only a half dozen studies on children that young, primarily because it was believed that younger children didn’t watch TV.”
tops: 193.5pt">In some ways, Sesame Workshop was obliged to take younger viewers into account when they made changes to the show’s format two seasons ago. Originally intended for 3- to 5-year-olds, the show is now designed to appeal to ages 2 to 4. Responding to the changing audience may have been a good marketing decision, but it also answered the needs of these young viewers, something Sesame Workshop has cared passionately about from the very beginning.
tops: 193.5pt">Brought to You by the Number 33 …
Rocking a corporate culture that was built on an early premise wasn’t easy. But season 33 debuted with a new format.
“There’s more of a beginning, middle and end” to each show, says Knell.
Anderson, who had recommended that the Workshop move to the new format, has found that children are quite capable of following a longer story line as long as the material is age-appropriate. Today, these longer segments fill the hour-long, commercial-free show.
“Children enjoy the new predictable format,” says Housley-Juster. Kids are more engaged and topics are explored more deeply.
As Sesame Street celebrates its 35th year, young viewers will continue to see favorites such as the Letter of the Day with Cookie Monster, the Number of the Day with The Count and a Spanish word with Rosita. Plus, there’s Global Grover, a short live-action film that introduces children to other cultures; and Global Thingy, an animated short about sharing and other social concepts.
There are also some new friends: Madelenka appears in animated segments about a little girl who lives in a diverse neighborhood; and Trash Gordon is a model for storytelling that has Oscar reading a bedtime story to Slimey.
And while Grover may be going global, Elmo’s got the whole world in his hands. Elmo’s World, a 10-minute segment ending each program, pleases Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who has played Elmo for the past 19 years. Clash is the segment’s co-executive producer and has been nominated for a Daytime Emmy this year. Sesame Street received 10 other Emmy nominations. The awards presentation is May 21.
For parents, Sesame Street continues its wonderful parodies; this season features Dr. Feel (Dr. Phil), Joe Hundred Guy (Joe Millionaire), Triangle Bob Trianglepants (Spongebob Squarepants) and appearances by celebrities Julianne Moore, Norah Jones and Harvey Fierstein.
Sesame Workshop has really never been averse to change; in fact, each season is referred to as an experiment, as in Experimental Season 35.
“Sesame Street exists in a competitive environment dominated by big integrated media companies such as Nickelodeon and Disney,” says Knell. “We have to be smarter to get our boat down the river. It’s 35 years later, and we are still doing it. I guess that says something.”
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Jean Sheff is an editor for United Parenting Publications and a cookie monster in her own right.