Sesame Street is an educational children’s television series for preschoolers that teaches a broad range of curricula, from letter and numbers to socio-emotional and coping skills. The series is the longest running US children’s television show, having first aired in 1969, and has won over 100 Emmys, more than any other television program. It is often heralded as the hallmark of entertainment education programming because of its broad spectrum popularity, its stringent research process, and its international impact.
Sesame Street was created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrissett in response to a perceived need to improve basic cognitive, social, and emotional skills in preschool children, particularly minority and inner-city youth. Through this television program, preschoolers could begin to learn the alphabet, numbers, and positive social skills in their homes. The show’s early success paved the way for other educational programming, especially on the Public Broadcasting System, where it was aired.
A combination of live action, animation, and puppetry, the show is produced in magazine format, a series of short vignettes with a narrative storyline set on the Street with the live-action and puppet characters woven throughout. Although the format has changed slightly, so that the narrative storyline is shown with fewer interruptions, the use of short-form scenes that have inherent educational value has remained constant. The live-action scenes include the diverse set of cast members, the Muppets (the puppets created by Jim Henson and his company), and real children.
The addition of the Muppets to the cast early on was critical to the show’s long-term success. Segments with Big Bird, Ernie, Bert, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, and others (including Elmo in later years) had strong appeal with both kids and parents. Although the original funding for creating the series came from federal agencies and philanthropic organizations such as the Ford and Carnegie Foundations, the licensing income from the Muppet-related products sustained the show from the mid-1970s. Since then, the licensing revenue has been a major source of income for the show’s parent production company, Sesame Workshop (originally called the Children’s Television Workshop). In recent years, approximately 40 percent of the Workshop’s revenue has come from licensed products. This financially successful model of children’s educational television character licensing, and the impact of particular success cases such as the Tickle-Me Elmo doll that was produced by Fisher-Price/Mattel in 1996, has had a strong impact on the licensing models for children’s educational programs, such as Barney and Blue’s Clues (Morrow 2006; Bryant 2007).
Another reason for the success of the show is that it appeals to both children and their parents. Guest appearances by prominent personalities and adult-targeted cultural references throughout the show make the program appealing to parents, and therefore help foster co-viewing between parents and children. In addition, because of the longevity of the show, many parents today have themselves watched the show as children, and therefore the show has a nostalgic value for them as well.
Research and Outreach
One of the hallmarks of the show is the research behind it. Each episode has a specific curriculum, and each vignette or storyline within the episode ties back into the overall curriculum for the show. The show has a research team and curriculum content specialists who work hand in hand with the creative producers to create each episode. Through formative research during the production process, they make sure that children are learning the lessons outlined in the curriculum. Via summative research, conducted after the series airs, they can assess the actual impact of the program on its viewers. This intertwined research–production–content model has come to be called “the Sesame Workshop Model.” Sesame Street is the most heavily researched television program ever, with over 1,000 studies conducted about it globally (Fisch & Truglio 2001).
In addition, since one of the main goals of the program is to reach low-income and minority children, outreach has also been a consistent part of the Sesame Street project. Outreach materials for the show are available through local PBS stations and distributed through community and national organization partnerships.
Soon after the early success of Sesame Street in the US, Sesame Workshop began to coproduce international variations of the series with partner production companies in countries across the world. The first co-productions, Plaza Sésamo in Mexico and Vila Sésamo in Brazil, went on air in 1972. One year later Sesamstrasse was aired in Germany. Since then, the Workshop has partnered to create over 30 co-productions, from India to Turkey to Brazil to Japan. These co-productions, along with airings of the US version (either in English or dubbed in the native language) of the series, have reached children and parents in 120 countries.
Each of the co-productions is based on the process of the Sesame Workshop Model and fashioned after the original US show, but is overhauled so that it reflects the local culture as well as the specific needs of children in that region. For example, Takalani Sesame is a South African co-production which, in addition to the basic cognitive and social curricula, also deals with the HIV/AIDs epidemic in the region through a Muppet called Kami, who is HIV-positive. In Egypt, Alam Simsim has a strong focus on empowering girls in order to address the problem of female literacy. In the Middle East, a group of Jordanian, Israeli, and Palestinian co-production partners created Sippuray Sumsum which promotes cross-cultural respect through three separate versions of the show that have both unique and shared elements (Cole et al. 2001).
Other Media and Events
In addition to the television show, Sesame Street can now be found on other media platforms, including DVDs, computer games, and on the web. In keeping with its hallmark researchintensive model, these products for children are also created through internal partnerships with researchers, content specialists, and producers. In addition, the website for Sesame Workshop (https://www.sesameworkshop.org/) has extensive information for parents, including extension activities and caregiving advice. The curricula for each episode can be found on the Public Broadcasting Service’s children’s programming website https://pbskids.org/sesame/.
There is also a number of parks and live shows based on the show. For example, in Japan there is Tokyo Sesame Place and there is a Sesame Place in Pennsylvania (US). In addition, the Sesame Street Live franchise produces live shows that are on tour both in the US and internationally.
- Borgenicht, D. (1998). Sesame Street unpaved: Scripts, stories, secrets, and songs. New York: Hyperion.
- Bryant, J. A. (2007). How has the kids’ media industry evolved? In. S. Mazzarella, Twenty questions about youth and media. New York: Peter Lang, pp. 13–28.
- Bryant, J. A., Bryant, J., Mullikin, L., McCollum, J., & Love, C. (2001). Curriculum-based preschool television programming and the American family: Historical development, impact of public policy, and social and educational effects. In J. Bryant & J. A. Bryant (eds.), Television and the American family, 2nd edn. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 415–433.
- Cole, C. F., Richman, B. A., & McCann Brown, S. K. (2001). The world of Sesame Street In S. M. Fisch & R. T. Truglio (eds.), G is for growing: Thirty years of research on children and Sesame Street. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 147–179.
- Fisch, S. M. (2007). Peeking behind the screen: Varied approaches to the production of educational television. In J. A. Bryant (ed.), The children’s television community. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, pp. 95–110.
- Fisch, S. M., & Truglio, R. T. (eds.) (2001). G is for growing: Thirty years of research on children and Sesame Street. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Lesser, G. S. (1974). Children and television: Lessons from “Sesame Street”. New York: Vintage Books.
- Mielke, K. W. (1994). Sesame Street and children in poverty. Media Studies Journal (special issue: Children and the Media), 8(4), 124–134.
- Morrow, R. W. (2006). “Sesame Street” and the reform of children’s television. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
- Polsky, R. M. (1974). Getting to Sesame Street: Origins of the Children’s Television Workshop. New York: Praeger.
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