The Children’s Media Foundation (CMF)

“Street Gang” Tells Us How We Got To “Sesame Street”

Long-time CMF supporter and member of the Foundation's Academic Advisory Board, David Kleeman, SVP Global Trends at Dubit Ltd, looks at the origins and enduring value of "Sesame Street" through the lens of a new documentary on how it all started 52 years ago. "Street Gang: How We Got To Sesame Street" is available to download from 31 January.  

For content creators coming up in today’s omni-media environment, it may be hard to fathom what a revolution “Sesame Street” represented in 1969. Children’s media was children’s television, with so few channels they could be counted on one hand, and very limited hours devoted to children in the US (early mornings and Saturday cartoons). Widespread multi-channel cable was still a decade away, as were the first rudimentary home computers. The US Department of Defense was only distributing the first funds to build the ARPANET, forerunner of the Internet.

For British media professionals, what may be even more gobsmacking is that “Sesame” debuted a year before the founding of the Public Broadcasting Service. This was almost 50 years after the BBC was founded, and the Beeb already had a wide selection of children’s programming. “Sesame” joined “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and schools television and nothing else which could be said to be public service.

Today, with almost unlimited devices, platforms and channels delivering content to kids, we parse new content concepts to a fine mince: tightly-focused target ages closely attuned to developmental hallmarks; highly-specific content, themes or curriculum; an explicit “need” to be fulfilled; distribution and marketing patterns honed to promote discovery and engagement against a tsunami of content. “Sesame Street,” by contrast, aimed at developing the whole child – weaving together cognitive, social, emotional and cultural objectives.

These pioneers’ experiments have provided us with invaluable research, insights and techniques that children’s media (not just TV any longer) creators bring to bear in our work daily.

Much as you’ll marvel at the ‘chewing gum and paper clip’ jerry-rigging of the ‘60s – and give thanks for the tools and technologies that make production easier today – it’s important to watch “Street Gang” with an eye toward “Sesame Street’s” fundamental focus on the eternal foundations of child development, that continue to give the series its essence 52 seasons in.

In presentations, I often quote Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, saying: I very frequently get the question: What’s going to change in the next 10 years…I almost never get the question what’s not going to change…and I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two—because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.

Child development doesn’t change. Jean Piaget and Maria Montessori, among others, recognized that young people navigating childhood will always pass through the same cognitive, physical, social and emotional stages. What varies widely over time and across cultures is the context in which kids grow and learn.

“Sesame Street” couldn’t have survived 52 seasons had it chased trends, either in media or in education. It’s always honored the timeless hallmarks of every child’s development. With this as a firm base, the series has been free to incorporate timely or sensitive content, developed from concept to content through its time-tested formative research processes.

This comes through clearly in the “Street Gang” segment reviewing the handling of Mr. Hooper’s death. But the global history of “Sesame Street” is replete with similarly daring examples: Kami, the HIV+ character in South Africa; an Israeli-Palestinian co-production; a metaphoric episode on fear shortly after 9/11. Equally important - that fundamental reliance on understanding childhood, and on iterative writing and testing, has sometimes told “Sesame Street” that it was on the wrong track. A storyline on divorce was shelved because the research said it left children more anxious than before.

In recent months, “Sesame Street” has popped up as a political stalking horse – should Big Bird have gotten a COVID vaccination? Is introducing a Korean-American Muppet “woke”? “Street Gang” gang makes it clear that the series has always been political, but with a very small “p” – especially as it espouses every child having the opportunity to see him or herself in the story.

In its early days, Muppet Roosevelt Franklin was an explicitly Black character as the series sought to engage children who’d seldom known a TV character who looked or talked like them. Jesse Jackson visited the street to lead a rainbow coalition of children in a call-and-response “I am somebody.”

More recently, “Sesame” introduced Julia – a Muppet with autism – and it’s created special features and curricula for children experiencing homelessness, for children of deployed troops, for refugee families, and to help kids and families talk about diversity, equity and inclusion.

Is this “woke”? Over the closing credits of “Street Gang,” Sonia Manzano (Maria on “Sesame Street”) says it most simply: Sesame Street” wanted to give kids tools to create the world they wanted to live in. Series composer Joe Raposo captured the series ethos in discussing the song “It Isn’t Easy Being Green”: We’re not sure what we are or what we can be; we know there’s potential and the realization to accept ourselves. To know that we can become something perhaps we never dreamed we could be. That’s what “Sesame Street” is about.

Not that “Sesame Street” wasn’t controversial from the start. “Street Gang” devotes substantial time to the decision by Mississippi’s public television authority not to air the series at its debut, because the Street was integrated. (The segment also beautifully demonstrates how these anxieties are primarily among adults; clips of deep-drawling southern children who’ve seen “Sesame” say they prefer it over other programming.)

The series’ arrival in the UK was delayed when the BBC emphatically turned it down. The Guardian’s obituary for then-BBC-children’s head Monica Sims reads She caused a row the same year by lambasting the American programme “Sesame Street” for ‘its middle-class attitudes’ and its apparent aim ‘to change children’s behaviour’. ‘This sounds like indoctrination and a dangerous use of television.”

“Street Gang” covers the early years of “Sesame Street.” There’s a lot of history that follows, including global expansion, accommodation to the rise of digital, the recent deal to bring new episodes to HBO, and more. Michael Davis is working on a book sequel to bring the history up to date.

My biggest takeaway, however, is that the smartest decision Joan Ganz Cooney and her co-founders made was to call the company a “Workshop.” Over a half-century in, their work is never done, there’s always room for growth and learning, and there’s perpetually a new audience of children ready for ‘sunny days’ on “Sesame Street.”


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