Nicole Colson looks at the 40-year legacy of the children's show
Sesame Street, and the way it revolutionized television.
November 12, 2009
THIS MONTH marks the 40th anniversary of the television show that may
have had a greater impact on the lives of multiple generations of
people around the globe than any other.
I'm talking, of course, about Sesame Street.
Currently on the air in some 125 countries, Sesame Street is the
longest-running children's TV program in U.S. history. It has become
a staple of American life, with one 1996 survey finding that 95
percent of American preschoolers had watched the show by the time
they were age 3.
Sesame Street has become such an important part of life for millions
of kids in the U.S. that, when the transition to digital television
was scheduled earlier this year, it was delayed for several months in
part due to fears that low-income families would find themselves
suddenly without the show.
The show began as an experiment in a seemingly simple, yet
revolutionary, idea: that TV could be used to help teach very young children.
Although there were kids' shows like Captain Kangaroo and Howdy
Doody, Sesame Street was the first show to consciously explore the
potential of TV to teach kids basics like numbers and letters, and
how to navigate emotions and social interaction.
The idea for what would become Sesame Street grew out of a dinner
party thrown in 1966 by public TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney. The
party included Lloyd Morrisett, then-vice president of the Carnegie
The concept for Sesame Street was shaped by the social movements of
the 1960s and growing progressive politics that, on a national scale,
had seen the implementation of the Johnson administration's "War on
Poverty." The resulting 1965 Head Start program would target
low-income pre-school aged children for early intervention with
educational, health and nutritional assistance and other social services.
In 1968, the Children's Television Workshop was founded, with money
from Carnegie, the Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public
Broadcasting--a creation of the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, which,
for the first time, authorized federal funds for the production of
culturally enriching content for public television. The Workshop's
first project was Sesame Street, which would debut the following year.
When it premiered, Sesame Street had the distinction of having "the
most extensive planning for any TV show to date," the New York Times
wrote at the time. The show's research team designated a "curriculum
focus" for each season, and identified and emphasized a "set of
related objectives" that were written into each episode.
Learning was reinforced through constant repetition and reinforcement
of concepts--each episode has a "letter of the day" and "number of
the day" featured in multiple segments throughout the show, grounded
by a running story set on the "street" featuring adults and monsters
Segments were written with some sly adult humor as well--the use of
celebrity guest appearances, for example, and re-workings of popular
songs (such as, Johnny Cash singing "Don't Take Your Ones to Town," a
take-off on his hit "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," or REM singing
"Furry Happy Monsters," a spoof of "Shiny Happy People")--which
encouraged parents to view the show alongside their kids. This season
featured a Mad Men parody, complete with opening credits, for "Muppet
Men"--where the advertising Muppets make commercials that prompt emotions.
As Michael Davis, author of Street Gang: The Complete History of
Sesame Street, writes, the show's creators "came together at a
star-crossed moment in American life when people of means who lived
in comfort chose to dedicate their energies to the less fortunate and
the forgotten, the rural poor and the underprivileged of the urban
ghettos. Sesame succeeded beyond their wildest imaginings and, in
doing so, changed the world, one child at a time."
Famously left-wing pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock predicted early on
that Sesame Street would result in "better-trained citizens, fewer
unemployables in the next generation, fewer people on welfare and
smaller jail populations."
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THAT MAY be a more than a slight overstatement, but the show struck a
nerve from its debut on November 10, 1969. Nearly 2 million
households tuned into the first episode. By the end of its first
season, 7 million children a day were watching the show. Ten years
after it began, according to Davis, some 9 million American children
under the age of 6 were watching Sesame Street daily--and 90 percent
of children from low-income inner-city homes regularly viewed the show.
Sesame Street was unique in the approach it took: geared toward urban
kids, the "street" was set in an urban landscape, complete with
graffiti, peeling paint and trash cans (the street has a more
"cleaned-up" look today) and a multigenerational and multiracial cast.
This ruffled some feathers. In 1970, a state commission in
Mississippi briefly banned the show because of its integrated cast.
"Mississippi was not yet ready" for the multiracial cast, one member
of the commission told the New York Times. The vote was reversed when
the story made national news.
Linda (actress Linda Bove) was the first regular deaf character on
American television. And today, Leela (Nitya Vidyasagar) is one of
the only Hindu characters.
Much of the joyous nature of the show is due, of course, to
late-puppeteer Jim Henson and his Muppet monsters. (Cooney had
insisted that either Henson create the puppets for the show, or no
puppets be used at all.)
Initially, the humans and monsters were never supposed to
interact--the "street" scenes were for humans only, while the
monsters would appear in various skits or interspersed segments.
Child psychologists had advised the show that young children would be
confused by the combination of the real world and Muppets. But when
producers tested early episodes, they found that children were
fascinated by the monsters and utterly bored by the human scenes.
The decision was made to create Muppets to interact with the
humans--and Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch were born. Big Bird
remains, in many ways, the heart of the show: a 4-year-old trapped in
an eight-foot-tall yellow-feathered body. He has the innocence and
wonder of a small child, and sometimes the confusion or sadness of one as well.
Other Muppets embody character foibles that are easily
relatable--Oscar the Grouch's constant grumpiness, Bert's anal
retentiveness, Telly's worrying, Grover's frustrated flailing.
As Davis notes,
Considering that most Muppets start out as bath mats with appliqués,
it's fairly miraculous that they seem to have more dimensionality to
their personalities than do most human characters on TV...[Henson]
understood that viewers would suspend their sense of disbelief if
they saw pieces of themselves in the characters.
The show was also groundbreaking for the way that serious issues were
tackled head-on. Children's questions were always taken up in a way
that was honest, thoughtful and without condescension. Perhaps the
most famous instance was the death in 1982 of actor Will Lee, who
played shopkeeper Mr. Hooper--the most popular character on the show.
Lee was an amazing figure in his own right--an early proponent of
Method acting and a member of the left-wing Worker's Laboratory
Theater and the Theater of Action during the 1930s. He was also a
victim of the McCarthy blacklist after he refused to testify when
called before the anti-communist House Un-American Activities
Committee in 1948.
After Lee's death, it was decided that a new actor would not be hired
to replace him, Instead, the show dealt with his death on air, in a
famously poignant episode, that included the grown-ups explaining to
Big Bird that Mr. Hooper would not ever be coming back, and that
people die "just because." In other words, Mr. Hooper's death was
explained in a way that 4-year-olds could understand and grieve.
The show where Mr. Hooper's death was announced was scheduled for
Thanksgiving, so that more parents would be at home with their kids,
and was publicized so that parents could watch with kids and answer
their questions. Writers also made sure not to say that Mr. Hooper
died in hospital, so that kids wouldn't be scared of going to a hospital.
Since then, Sesame Street has tackled topics including the Iraq War
(furry red monster Elmo has a father who, in one special, spends
"lots and lots" of days in Iraq before finally coming home); adoption
(the Street's veterinarian Dr. Gina became a single mom when she
adopted a baby boy from Guatemala); and Hurricane Katrina (a
five-part series had Big Bird's nest destroyed by a hurricane and
Muppets and people helping to rebuild it).
Part of what makes the Street special has always been its social
conscience--teaching kids how to treat the people in their
communities with love and respect, and to feel pride in themselves.
In one episode in 1971, a then 30-year-old Jesse Jackson led kids in
reciting the spoken-word poem "I am somebody". It included the lines:
"I may be poor, but I am somebody...I may be on welfare, but I am
somebody / I may be small, but I am somebody."
Another classic from the 1970s captured the burgeoning women's
movement. "Women Can Be" includes female Muppets singing about being
daring surgeons, astronauts and lion tamers.
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THE IMPORTANCE of the show extends far beyond the U.S. It "has
arguably had an even greater impact overseas, especially in places
like Kosovo and South Africa, where the show is made in partnership
with local TV producers and tailored to local concerns," noted the
New York Times.
In 2002, Takalani Sesame, the South African version of the show--in
which Bert speaks with a black South African accent and Ernie with a
white one--debuted a Muppet named Kami, an orphan who was infected
with HIV. At the time, one in every nine South Africans was infected with HIV.
Yet people with AIDS still faced tremendous prejudice, and the
government of Thabo Mbeki openly denied the value of medication to
treat the virus. "We are living in a society that is very
stigmatizing and discriminatory," said Musa Njoko, an AIDS activist,
told the Associated Press when Kami was created. The introduction of
Kami "is going to create a culture of acceptance."
In her first episode, Kami wanders onto Sesame Street, scared that no
one will want to play with her. But people and Muppets alike welcome
her--and allow her to teach them about HIV. "They say they don't want
to touch me because they think I'll make them sick," she explains to
her new friends about why children at school refuse to play with
her--a reality facing many South African children at the time.
Sometimes, political realities have forced the show to make drastic
changes. Jointly produced segments that showed characters from the
Palestinian show, Shara'a Simsim, interacting with characters from
the Israeli version, Rechov Sumsum, had to be scrapped after the
Second Intifada, in part because of political difficulties over
scenes of Palestinian and Israeli children interacting as part of
Even the decision of where to show the characters meeting posed
problems. As New York Times reporter Samantha Shapiro detailed in a
recent profile of the Palestinian show:
[T]he Israelis were in favor of spontaneous Muppet drop-bys, but the
Palestinians insisted the visits had to be by invitation only. "The
only Israelis who come to Palestinian neighborhoods uninvited are
settlers," [executive director Daoud] Kuttab explained to me.
The Israelis told me they were trying to emulate the philosophy of
Sesame Street, to portray the world they wished for, more than the
world that was...
For Kuttab, the Israeli idea that Palestinian and Israelis on the
show would be best buddies who casually drop in on each other was
absurd. In real life, the Israeli production staff refused to travel
to Ramallah even for informal visits--they feared for their
safety--and many of the Palestinian crew didn't have permits to enter
Today, a new version of Shara'a Simsim is in production. According to
the Sesame Workshop Web site, the need for a new Palestinian version
of the show is clear:
According to UNICEF research, children in nearly one-third of
Palestinian families were experiencing anxiety, phobia, or depression
as of June 2007...
"Hope comes in many forms," Kuttab says. "We believe that giving the
children positive, wholesome programs that speak with their dialect,
reflect their own communities, and deal with issues they face daily
will give them a smile--and ultimately hope."
Although the show is careful to avoid direct references to political
conflict, it consciously explores the trauma that Palestinian
children experience through metaphorical avenues--showing the
community working together to repair damage after a storm, for example.
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AS THE New York Times noted, "The show's original intent was to
present enjoyable and beguiling preschool education to poor children
who did not have access to decent preschools while bringing diversity
to children's programming. Sesame Street wasn't the only children's
show with a social message...But it was the mixture of whimsy, pop
music and didactic rigor that distinguished Sesame Street from
But whimsy has enemies--and the show has, at times, run afoul of
conservatives, often for absurd reasons. In 1994, for example, a
group of fundamentalist ministers accused Bert and Ernie of being
gay, and PBS was forced to issue a statement that the two were just
friends and roommates.
During the so-called "Republican Revolution" of the 1990s, Newt
Gingrich waged a frontal assault on the idea of publicly funded TV,
declaring that PBS was "this little sandbox for the rich." He pushed
to cut all federal funds to the network, and dismissed PBS supporters
as "a small group of elitists who want to tax all the American people
so they get to spend the money."
The show is not without its weak spots. Female Muppets tend to be
less prominent on the show and extra-girly, like the pink
fairy-in-training Abby Cadabby. And anyone who's ever had to listen
to a toddler play with "YMCA Elmo," "Chicken Dance Elmo" or "Tickle
Me Elmo" has surely wished a pox on the Sesame Street marketing machine.
There are also questions to be asked about the idea that young
children should be guided toward learning a set curriculum that will
prepare them for elementary school--rather than exploring learning in
a less-structured and more self-selected way. And it should go
without saying that TV, even TV as good as Sesame Street, could never
replace quality day care, preschools and teachers.
But Sesame Street has filled an important need for 40 years--and
transformed the landscape of American TV while doing so. After all,
there would be no Dora, Diego, Blue's Clues or Wonderpets if not for
the big yellow bird that came first.
As Michael Davis recently told the Dallas Morning News, when asked
about the show's legacy, just try to imagine a world without Muppets.
"I think it's all but impossible to do, but even if you can, what a
sadder and drearier world that would have to be," Davis said. "It's
not just an iconic piece of a past magical time; it's still standing,
growing, evolving. Here's a show on a medium where things often don't
last 40 minutes, and it's lasted 40 years and is still going strong."