Friday, October 19, 2012

Reason #261: Sesame Street

The left has been banging this drum so hard for the last couple weeks that I'm almost loathe to get into it myself...almost. So let's take a closer look at Sesame Street.

More than forty years into its existence, and with numerous foreign-language versions featuring both dubbed and new material, Sesame Street is now the most widely-viewed children's television program on the planet. But the landscape has expanded dramatically in those forty years, and where it was once the "heavyweight champion" of its field, it is now only the fifteenth-highest-rated children's show. Despite the increased competition from both educational (Dora) and decidedly non-educational (Spongebob) shows, Sesame Street continues to have a mammoth effect on our culture, and more importantly, our early education--by the late nineties, it was estimated that a resounding 95% of American preschoolers had been exposed to the show in their first three years.

When it first premiered, Sesame Street was unique for several reasons--for starters, its production values (read: budget) far exceeded the typical children's programming of the time. The show was founded on the sum of $8 million, which came from not only federal subsidies, but from the Carnegie Corporation and Ford Foundation. The goal of its creators was to harness the addictive properties of television (well-known even back then) for use in developing the cognitive, and eventually emotional, skills of children who were too young for school.

Given that the show was being partly funded by the government, it was marked by an egalitarian and representative streak that would be unfathomable today--casting was conducted with the express goal of nonwhite actors featuring more prominently than white ones, and with specific effort being made to reflecting conditions both high- and low-income viewers could relate to. Indeed, the show was especially successful in poor neighborhoods, where parents perhaps had less quality time with their young ones themselves.

The show was just as agreeable behind the scenes--in order to attract better creative talent, songwriters and performers (notably Jim Henson) were allowed to retain copyrights to their original material, meaning that Kermit the Frog could appear on both Sesame Street and the Muppet Show, and original songs that went on to become genuine hits, like Rubber Ducky, would do as well for their writers as for the show itself.

Another bold step the show took early on was to blend the originally-separated human and muppet portions of the show, after it was determined that the mix wouldn't freak anybody out (no, really). Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, in fact, were specifically designed to easily incorporate into the human-scale sets, whereas characters like Elmo and Grover, obviously, were smaller and designed to occupy a larger portion of the screen than they typically would alongside an adult human.

As time went on, and the show's educational models--which were the first ever on television to utilize an actual curriculum--were proven to be successful, the show started branching out into larger, more serialized narratives. By the eighties, when one of the main human actors passed away, it was decided that his character, Mr. Hooper, would die on the show and allow his loss to become a teaching moment itself--a move that could easily have been disastrous, but was seen as an unqualified success in teaching viewers how to cope with grief and the loss of a loved one.

Sesame Street never looked back--shortly thereafter, Mr. Snuffleupagus was "revealed" to the human charcters (who had previously thought him to be Big Bird's imaginary friend) as a way of emboldening children to speak out about abuse in their households. By the 2000s, topics like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina were being incorporated into the narrative in ways that toddlers could understand without alienating them or angering their parents.

The image at the top of this entry is typical of the Republican position on Public Television--they see it as a bureaucratic, anti-capitalist welfare program that props up its own values in defiance of the free market; in other words, as the epitome of liberal thinking, and the antithesis of a juggernaut like Spongebob Squarepants, which doesn't let education get in the way of the bottom dollar.

To which I say, damn straight.

Further Reading

History of Sesame Street

1 comment:

  1. I think it's funny that the Republicans don't believe in public assistance but they do believe in tax cuts for the rich.