You’ve seen it on Google themes –Sesame Street turns the big 4-0 this week.
Today, it’s seen in 140 countries. Not bad for a bit of foam and some basic arithmetic. But the show is of course, so much more.
Kermit has become an international star. Big Bird has made the cover of Time magazine. Bert and Ernie and the Cookie Monster are household names. Oscar the Grouch, Elmo, and Count Von Count are institutions.
In 1966, the Carnegie Institute hired Joan Ganz Cooney to study how the media could be used to help young children, especially those from low-income families, learn and prepare for school. Cooney proposed using television’s “most engaging traits”, including high production values, sophisticated writing, and quality film and animation, to reach the largest audience possible.
With Lloyd Morrisett she established the Children’s Television Workshop. Jim Henson, who had created The Muppets, became involved in 1969.
“It was always a good idea,” Henson told CBS News when Sesame Street turned 20 in 1989. “But even when the show went on the air, it immediately had a wonderful response from the audiences, which even that came as a surprise because, like, we were working on a fairly small, little children’s show.”
That little show has a reputation now unsurpassed in children’s telly.
As Newsweek says, “No show has affected the way we think about education, parenting, childhood development and cultural diversity, both in the United States and abroad, more than Big Bird and friends.”
Since its birth the series has received 118 Emmy Awards, more than any other television series. 25 independent versions have been produced. A condition of its foreign licensing is that non-US versions of the show reflect the morals and traditions of the host nation. Characters have been used to promote HIV awareness in South Africa, bridge the sectarian divide in Belfast and teach youngsters in the Middle East about tolerance.
But in the UK it’s had a troubled life after British children grew up knowing that their American counterparts pronounced “Zed” as “Zee.” It was picked up by London Weekend Television in 1971, where it became a Saturday morning fixture. Other ITV regions also showed it, before Channel 4 took it on. But in March 2001 Sesame Street left British screens and has yet to return. Today, its presence in the UK is limited to Sesame Tree on BBC Northern Ireland.
In Australia it had a long history on the ABC when it began in 1971. It still airs on ABC2.
This week, US first lady Michelle Obama will make an appearance to plant a garden and promote healthy eating in the show’s season premiere.