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How Sesame Street Revolutionized Television

In its 45 year history Sesame Street has become one of the most popular and easily recognized children’s television show. The show was built around a single, breakthrough insight: that if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them (Gladwell, 2000, p. 100). And educate they did. By the show’s tenth anniversary, approximately seven million children under the age of twelve watched Sesame Street every week. (Sesame Workshop, 2014, 40 Years and Counting). By its 40th season in 2009, Sesame Street had an audience of over 9 million children in 120 countries. With its success of teaching millions of children around the world, Sesame Street rivals the methods used in traditional classrooms, while continuing to grow and advance.


On November 10, 1969 children around the United States heard the now iconic theme song, “Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?” for the first time. Created by television producer and children’s education advocate Joan Ganz Cooney, and experimental psychologist Lloyd Morrisett, Sesame Street is aimed at educating preschool aged children in preparation for grade school. Soon after Sesame Street’s conception Cooney and Morrisett created Children’s Television Workshop, now Sesame Workshop, which is the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street and other multi-media educational materials. Sesame Workshop’s mission is simple; “to use the educational power of media to help children everywhere reach their highest potential,” (Sesame Workshop, 2014, Our Mission)


This episode is brought to you by the letter W and the number 2

The first episode of Sesame Street aired on November 10, 1969 on PBS. The episode was brought to the world by the letters W, S, and E, and by the numbers 2 and 3 (Davis, 2008, p. 192). Short, colourful segments, which appealed to both children and adults, characterized the show. The Sesame Street creators realized that by making it appealing to multiple age demographics the show would create a stronger educational value for both parent and child. This is in part why Jim Henson was hired to create the puppets. (Davis, 2008, p. 148-150).


In its 45 seasons, Sesame Street has created more than 4,300 episodes, and has been awarded 118 Emmys to date – the most for any television show in history (Sesame Workshop, 2014, 40 Years and Counting).


Education at its Core

Sesame Street was built with education in mind. “The script and format implemented techniques directed toward the instruction of specific educational goals, selected by the staff of the Children’s Television Workshop and the many psychologists, sociologists, and educators who worked as consultants” (Minton, 1975, p. 141). The show focused on providing disadvantaged inner-city children with basic knowledge and skills. Cooney and Morrisett received several million dollars to fund pre-production research, which put the show ahead before it even aired.


Cooney conducted a study titled “The Potential Uses of Television in Preschool Education,” where she spent four-months observing children and surveying the opinions of cognitive psychologists, educators, filmmakers, television producers, and specialists in children’s entertainment. (Carnegie Corp., 1967, p. 6). In her report Cooney includes recommendations for a television series, where she outlined the need for simplicity within, what would become, Sesame Street as three, four, and five year old children are at different levels of development. The show episodes were suggested to progress from simple concepts to more complex concepts, and balance education and entertainment, so that a five-year-old child would hold interest in the simple concepts, and a three-year-old would stay focused on the more complex material (Carnegie Corp., 1967, p. 29).


Sesame Street Goes International

To date Sesame Street can be seen in 120 countries worldwide. Because each country has a different culture and children’s learning needs, several international television companies have partnered with Sesame Workshop to create a version of Sesame Street for their country. Sesame Street rarely dubs a different language over the American version, instead an entirely new show is created, and in some countries it is created with different or additional characters. In addition to the United States, a version of Sesame Street can be found in 24 other countries including, Germany, Indonesia, Brazil, Israel, and Nigeria (Sesame Workshop, 2014, Where We Work).


Each international production of Sesame Street explores issues children of that country or region may face. In South Africa Takalani Sesame features a puppet with HIV/AIDS, and plays a role around educating against the stigmas of the disease and South African Culture (Lim, 2002). Rruga Sesam and Ulica Sezam in Albania and Serbia respectively, have partnered to dispel stereotypes and culture clashes between rival groups in those countries. The same has happened with versions of Sesame Street in the Middle East in countries like Israel and Jordan. In the Palestinian version, Shara’a Simsim includes strategies for children to cope with anxiety.


The Initiatives Behind Sesame Street

Sesame Street has four initiatives in its programming: literacy and numeracy, emotional wellbeing, health and wellness, and respect and understanding (Sesame Workshop, 2014, Our Initiatives). Their literacy and numeracy initiative sounds straightforward, basic numeracy and literacy skills. In fact, it is far from straightforward. Each literacy or numeracy example shown on the show has been carefully designed to meet the educational standards for the country the show airs in. Beginning in the early 2000s, Sesame Street (America) began to discuss some topics many other shows avoided, things like disasters, 9/11, family financial challenges, family grieving, and strength in the face of adversity (Sesame Workshop, 2014, Our Initiatives). Sesame Street also began to take initiatives in child health and wellness, airing stories about personal hygiene, personal safety, hunger, malaria, and lead exposure. A famous example of Sesame Street’s health initiative came in 2004, when Cookie Monster learnt that cookies are a ‘sometimes food’ (Sesame Workshop, 2014, 40 Years and Counting). Sesame Street’s final initiative is respect and understanding. The imitative includes understanding other cultures and their values, finding common ground between cultures, and working with people of varying ethnicities. The ‘Our Initiatives’ page on the Sesame Workshop goes into great detail on each of these initiatives, and explains the notable episodes from various versions of Sesame Street.


Research on Sesame Street

There have been many studies done on Sesame Street done by Sesame Workshop and its precursor Children’s Television Workshop, along with independent researchers, all on varying topics with different goals. “…Sesame Street was subject to such serious review indicated that the project had ascended to a level of importance not usually associated with children’s television” (Davis, 2008, p. 200).


One of the first assessments done on Sesame Street was done on the literacy and numeracy skills gained by children who watched the show. Measured against the Metropolitan Readiness Test, children who had watched the first season of Sesame Street scored better on the alphabet subtest than students who had not watched the show (Minton, 1975, p. 145). More recently, a study from The University of Iowa, commissioned by Sesame Workshop, shows that Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster is helping children to develop self-control and self-regulation.   


Creating Empathy

Sesame Street has gone farther than its original mandate of aiding the education of underprivileged children, by now acting as a conduit for global change. Looking at the Middle East versions of Sesame Street, they all cover topics of friendship and conflict resolution, while giving children a break, albeit short, from what might be a harrowing situation outside their front door. And since Sesame Street encourages parents to watch the show with their children, these messages are brought forward into the minds of adults in simple terms. 


I feel like one of the first lines in the first episode of Sesame Street sums the program up nicely, “Sally, you've never seen a street like Sesame Street before. Everything happens here. You're gonna love it!” (Smith, 1969)








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