1969 was a big year in history. 2019 has given us the 50th anniversaries of the Moon landing, the Woodstock Festival, Scooby-Doo, and the awesomest record album ever made. 50 years ago today, November 10, 1969, the single greatest, most influential television series of all time premiered. And unlike with (I’ll admit) the “awesomest record album ever made” there, those superlatives are not a matter of opinion. Because of this one little TV show, children’s television ever after changed, millions of people learned to read, and school districts radically altered their curricula and even their mandatory enrollment ages. I am speaking, of course, of Sesame Street.
I am a serious Sesame Street geek. I do not say this lightly. Oddly, though, I wasn’t a fan of Sesame Street when I was an actual preschooler. As I said about the Muppets, in general, the other month, I loved it as a toddler, but once higher-level thinking set in I got way too sensitive to zaniness, and about the only television I could handle anymore was Mister Rogers Neighborhood. That was the exact right, slowwwwww pace for me. So most of my memories of Sesame Street formed while my younger siblings (6 years and 10 years younger than myself) were its target audience. Even then I wasn’t a fan, not yet. In 11th grade, I needed a topic for my research writing class, and I let my brain storm randomly until a short clip of Cookie Monster flitted past, and I went, wait, what was that? That might be interesting to learn more about.*
Was it ever. Who knew how deeply this TV show that had always been around in my lifetime had shaped the world? Television pre-Sesame wasn’t even art, let alone educational. If you want to know why television earned a stereotype of mindless drivel, head back to its first few decades. At a dinner party in 1966, television producer Joan Ganz Cooney got to discussing the dearth of high-quality children’s programming with an executive of the Carnegie Corporation, Lloyd Morrisett. With the amount of time children spent watching TV, she wondered, why was nobody making a show that could be entertaining yet good for them? Morrisett replied, why don’t you make this show, Mrs. Cooney? If you can propose for us a way to make this work, the Carnegie Corporation will be happy to fund it. Which they did.
Cooney assembled a team of teachers, psychologists, producers, and creatives to research and plan how the show would take shape. They set several clear goals for the show at the start, before any matter of style and artistry was even discussed:
- It would teach the child the sounds and shapes of the most common upper and lower case letters, the shapes of numerals 1-10 and the amounts associated with each, and spatial relationships such as size and shape directly.
- It would teach the child concepts of cooperation, tolerance, manners, and conflict resolution indirectly, through the actions of the characters.
- It would focus on reaching poor inner-city children as its primary audience, as they tended to start school at a disadvantage to children from other groups. Though all children could benefit from watching the show, the producers wanted to directly give the poorer inner-city kids the leg up they sorely needed before starting school.
That is why they made the groundbreaking decision to set the show on a run-down inner-city street with a multi-ethnic cast. What, you don’t think that’s groundbreaking? That’s because you live in a post-Sesame Street world. In the 1960s, TV was white and middle class (or “comically” rural poor). A multi-ethnic cast was so unknown, that when Sesame Street first aired, it was even banned for a month in Mississippi until parents in the area protested. By showing their target audience a community they could recognize, Sesame Street‘s creators were deliberately telling those inner-city kids, “Hey, we see you, you matter, and letters and numbers are for you, too!”
But the planning committee had barely scratched the decision-making surface. The committee became the Children’s Television Workshop, whose purpose was to make sure, scientifically, that this show was doing the best it could possibly do to hold the attention of preschoolers and ensure the retention of the things it was teaching. It was, and remains, the most heavily researched television show in history. The committee watched children watching TV to see what sort of things held or lost their attention (a preference for commercials resulted in Sesame Street‘s initial format of small, interchangeable segments). Then each potential episode was screened before it aired to gauge its effectiveness. Even the music was studied to make sure it enhanced rather than detracted from the learning experience.
And after the broadcast, hundreds of independent research organizations studied the effects of the show. Including, in my small way, me.
“But,” my research writing teacher asked when I first suggested this topic to her, “you can’t just write about Sesame Street generally. You need a thesis question to focus on. What question will your paper set out to answer?” I remembered my mother telling me that I’d learned the alphabet from Sesame Street, so I suggested, “What, if any, effect did Sesame Street have on Early Childhood education?” And this is where my research completely blew me away.
I think I’d been vaguely aware that kindergarten hadn’t always been mandatory in U.S. schools, and that this change may have taken place in my parents’ lifetimes. I didn’t know that a massive shift in kindergarten curricula took place in direct response to half the incoming kindergarteners in the country being Sesame Street fans. One school district in suburban Chicago designed their own study to evaluate the effects of the show on the students in their own district (which became a valuable primary source for my paper!), and discovered that the new classes of kindergarteners, starting just one year after the show’s debut, were starting school already knowing the basic curriculum they’d been teaching in their kindergarten classes for decades. The school had to shift from simple letter-number recognition to basic phonics and calculation just to keep up with the students. Across the country, other schools followed suit. What had been the traditional kindergarten curriculum became the preschool curriculum, and kindergarten effectively became the true first grade.
More preschools sprung up, some of them based around Sesame Street itself. The Children’s Television Workshop published parent/teacher guides with each episode, encouraging further learning after viewing ended. Detractors argued that Sesame Street errantly thought it could take the place of direct interaction with parents and teachers, but the CTW insisted the show was meant only to be a tool and not to take the place of anybody. In fact, one of the reasons the show has always boasted celebrity cameos and pop culture references was to entice adults to watch with children, thereby reinforcing what was learned through conversation. (As a side effect, according to my mother who was one at the time, college students, with no direct contact with preschoolers, would even hang out watching it together in their dorms.)
The target audience of inner-city preschoolers was successfully learning, but so were preschoolers from every demographic. Immigrants of all ages were watching the show to learn English. And viewers weren’t just learning academics: studies confirmed that regular viewers tended also to show increased racial tolerance, a better understanding of manners and safety rules, and much larger vocabularies than non-viewers, regardless of other variables. (In fact, whenever a rare study came out insisting that Sesame Street was failing in some regard, the study always turned out to be biased or poorly constructed. I read one such study in my research, and I rolled my eyes at it: “Oh come on, I’m in high school and even I can see that’s a faulty way to prove your point!”)
Children’s Television Workshop, later known as Sesame Workshop (to cover all forms of media!), is a nonprofit organization, which may be hard to believe when you see the extent of Sesame-related licensed products out there. But that’s the point. The funds from all that merchandise go directly back into the development of that high-quality, heavily-researched show and, now, spin-off initiatives. The Workshop launched print media initiatives, special programs directed at certain populations (such as children in military families), home video, and online resources. At least forty international versions of the show have been developed, specifically designed with the people in the countries in question, so that the versions are tailored specifically to the needs of that culture’s children. Simply overdubbed versions of the American (or other co-productions) Street are seen in 100 countries more.
At around the time of the 40th anniversary, I started watching Sesame Street again with my own children. You would hear moans from people who didn’t even have kids about how Sesame Street just wasn’t the same, how Cookie Monster was now a Veggie Monster (not true) and Elmo had taken over the show (I had been taken aback by “Elmo’s World” usurping most of the back half of each episode at first, too, but it turns out that this was ALSO a result of the Workshop’s heavy research. They’d discovered that preschoolers tended to just watch the first half of the show, but toddlers would hang out for the whole thing—whodathunk—so they figured, why not cater to the audience that was there?), but dang, it was still good. Of course, it had already changed the world, so now there was a whole morning of great educational children’s programming on PBS, and my kids enjoyed some of the other shows just a little more.
Four years ago, when the popularity of streaming had made a huge cut in Sesame Workshop’s home video sales revenue, they made a deal with HBO—which, being far from non-profit, had the money to spare to fund this ambitious nonprofit enterprise. Unfortunately, HBO wasn’t just going to give away money without getting anything in return, so they landed exclusive rights to new episodes for nine months and exclusive streaming rights on its HBO Go app. I had spent the past decade defending Sesame Street against the uninformed grouches who kept insisting it just wasn’t as good as it used to be, but this development did give me pause. Sure, it’s not like the episodes would never be shown on PBS again, and kids for whom everything is new would never notice a delay in new episodes. Sure, without HBO’s financial boost, Sesame Street wouldn’t have been able to stay in production at all.
But on the other hand, Sesame Street had been, from the very beginning, specifically intended to serve disadvantaged children, and HBO didn’t get that memo. Even the set itself had been freshened up to appeal to the more comfortably-positioned audiences HBO was used to. Oh, sure, disadvantaged children could still enjoy it, just like all children had enjoyed the original un-gentrified Street. But that’s what most TV is like: designed to appeal to a white, suburban middle class. Sesame Street‘s insistence on making a show specifically for those poor multi-ethnic inner-city kids had filled a hole, provided something unique that wasn’t available anywhere else. HBO, I think, misses the point, and it doesn’t sit right with me.
Luckily, Sesame Workshop keeps on doing what it does, spreading literacy and more all over the world. There are 50 seasons of Sesame Street in the world already, and those 50 seasons have changed the landscapes of both entertainment and education. You can’t kill Sesame Street. Whatever its future, its past has already had a deeper impact than anything else ever created for TV, and that legacy can never be taken away.
*I have what appears to be the next to last draft of my complete research paper available to read here. It’s written by a seventeen-year-old, mind you, and I’m wincing at some of the writing nowadays, but the Works Cited pages at the end also serve as references for this article, since I’m basically using the paper as my reference. I got an unheard-of 100% on that paper, by the way, so my research is sound for an advanced 11th grader in 1995. That said, I’ve also updated my current references with Sesame Street: A Celebration: 40 Years of Life on the Street… which is already a decade old—oh gosh, where has it gone?! So for even more up-to-date information, I do keep up with news articles. And also great stuff like this series at ToughPigs.com, that’s been looking at every season of Sesame Street this year and is absurdly delightful—you should check it out.