Strolling Down Sesame Street

Fifty years and counting.

Posted Oct 25, 2019

Conceived at the end of the 1960s in a time that seemed both perilous and promising, Sesame Street set about to help prepare preschoolers. Urban riots had sharpened the growing national sense that a crisis in education lay behind the cycle of poverty, crime and decay that gripped American cities. If poor preparation was the problem, better preparation held a solution.

A group of producers, educators, evaluators, policymakers, funders, and puppeteers came together in 1967 to form a group called the Children's Television Workshop. Their charge: to "stimulate the intellectual and cultural growth of young children—particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds." Daringly, they had decided that the means of television could be enlisted to serve the ends of education.

Television seemed a "vast wasteland" to the thoughtful, and a commercial enterprise to the realistic. Innocuous national programming had avoided American realities as much as possible. Very few African Americans appeared on television, for example. Sometimes entirely silly, sometimes memorably entertaining, sitcoms like Gomer Pyle, USMC and Green Acres filled the airwaves. Besides Captain Kangaroo, kids lived on a meager diet of cartoons, cartoons, and more cartoons. "Educational television," dry as dust, usually meant Sunrise Semester to most—a marginal event on a crowded schedule.

The Children's Television Workshop founder Joan Ganz Cooney noticed that preschool kids watched television enthusiastically and that they paid especially close attention to commercials. CTW took heart from this. Couldn't an educational television program appropriate the jump-cut technique of Laugh-In, and the bold graphics of Batman to help kids learn the basics?  Couldn't a television program for kids educate and entertain?

The answer seems obvious to us now, as Sesame Street watchers routinely point out that the goal post looks like an H or that tires look like Os. But in that troubled time, many thoughtful people had given up on education, or given up on the idea that representatives of the "mainstream" could ever be much help to the "minority."

The Children's Television Workshop (renamed Sesame Workshop in 2000) had to prove that television could help children become more literate, "numerate," and aware of cultural diversity in such a way that would help them get along. (In 1967, this hot idea attracted more than $5 million in pledges for start-up costs including research.) The producers, writers, and multi-cultural cast worked in a zippy format in shows "brought to you by the letter W."  Celebrities appeared to help insure that parents would "co-monitor" the program. Jim Henson's Muppets lent the show originality and helped translate curriculum into comedy.

I had the delightful experience of meeting several of the founding luminaries of the show while developing a historical exhibit, Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street? with the designer Jeannine Lockwood and the team at The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York.

Photograph Courtesy The Strong National Museum of Play
Source: Photograph Courtesy The Strong National Museum of Play

Let me mention just one of these children’s television pioneers, the head of research, Harvard developmental psychologist Edward L. Palmer, who designed innovative formative and “summative” research that informed and guaranteed the effectiveness of each skit of every episode. Sesame Street became the "most researched program in history."  Understanding that educational viewing would compete with the minutiae of daily household life, Palmer devised a process he called “The Distractor” to measure children’s attention in seven-second intervals. If their gaze wandered from the screen ten or twenty percent of the time, the piece would be scrapped even if considerable time, budget, and creative effort had gone into production.

Meticulous psychological research like this helped Sesame Street debut to critical acclaim and success with the target audience. In 1970, Children’s Television Workshop set up field offices in America's inner cities and rural poverty areas to coordinate outreach to parents and kids. This paid off too. By 1973, Sesame Street was reaching 97% of Chicago households with preschoolers. And, by 1978, Sesame Street was reaching more than 90% of inner-city preschoolers nationwide. The Yankelovich polling organization declared that Sesame Street had become "an institution with ghetto children."

The Sixties' cultural revolution that had transformed music, fashion, sexual mores, racial attitudes, and citizens' relationships to their government, now seemed to be sweeping from the mass media into mass education. Educators held their opinion in reserve. Some worried openly that the show's fast pace would make children unfit for school, or that it would make learning look too easy, or that its slapstick would cheapen instruction. But Palmer’s research, and that of his successor, Valeria Lovelace,  proved that the more children watched, the more they learned. Though production costs ran to the millions, these seemed reasonable when regarded as an investment of about a penny per child-viewer per program. In modern parlance, this novel approach to education was “scalable.”

Academic controversy continued though, and the program responded as producers and evaluators learned more about their new medium. The pace slowed somewhat. The actors relaxed with the children. Big Bird grew fluffier.

Over five decades, Sesame Street responded to other needs and criticisms in a way that can be read as a cultural history of our times. As the groundbreaking curriculum in the early 1970s "modeled inclusion," Hispanic actors joined the cast. Women characters grew out of their traditional roles and bent gender barriers. Girl Muppets appeared on Sesame Street. Based in generic urban America, the show soon visited Appalachia, a Native-American reservation, and multi-cultural Hawaii. Sign language first appeared in the mid-70s when a deaf actress moved to Sesame Street. Forgetful Jones, a loveable cowboy with a short-term memory disorder, appeared in 1979. Later in the early 90s, a young disabled girl danced a wheelchair ballet. In 2016 Julia, a character with autism, performed a sweet soprano duet with Abby Cadabby; “Sunny Days/Chasin’ the clouds away…” Because millions of children and parents watched Sesame Street, these enhancements helped normalize the basic and wide-ranging changes that "mainstreamed" minorities in American culture over the last five decades.

Viewers can choose from a swarm of children’s educational programs today, thanks to the pioneering example of this program. But over the last fifty years we've come to count on and live by the tenets central to Sesame Street—that education may entertain us; that our country is rightfully and naturally multicultural, that women and men are equal, that children can learn despite disadvantage, that early education is crucial, that kids can learn about the hard subjects when kindly framed. The idea has been an enduring success. International versions of Sesame Street have carried this optimistic American message to more than 140 countries. After half a century, Sesame Street remains fresh, funny, idealistic, generous, optimistic, stimulating, measurably useful, playful, funny, and fun.