Sesame Street: 50 Years in the Service of Imagination and Learning

Sesame Street’s denizens, Elmo, Cookie Monster, Big Bird and friends, are now part of the world’s collective psyche. To mark the show’s fiftieth anniversary and celebrate its recently announced collaboration with Apple TV, a review of the iconic American classic’s achievements and success.

On March 21, 1968, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Ford Foundation, and U.S. Department of Education issued a joint press release to announce the creation of the Children’s Television Workshop (Sesame Street’s official name until 2000), a TV experience designed to educate young children. The press release mentions all the ingredients that make Sesame Street so successful: a desire to stimulate the intellectual and cultural growth of young children, the pooling of expertise in education, psychology and child development to produce programs that unite education and entertainment, and a desire to close the gap between underprivileged and middle-class children. Then a flourishing medium, TV was at the heart of the home. Fundamentally, the aim was to leverage use television to support the development of young Americans’ knowledge and skills through content that appealed to and interested them. It was a revolutionary approach then, and, in many ways, it still is today.

Fifty years later, Sesame Street has reached well beyond the borders of the U.S. Broadcast in 150 countries and 70 languages, the once experimental show is now a model. Today, it is one of the best examples of a kid brand ecosystem that allies relevance, intelligence, daring and education.

Thinking beyond silos

Sesame Street rapidly developed its practice, as well as its educational and academic footholds, by creating the Sesame Workshop, a non-profit foundation dedicated to scientific research into children’s media, creating intervention programs for schools and communities and, lastly, the pooling of expertise in creating for young audiences.

The Sesame Workshop also piloted the creation of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center (named after the show’s first producer), a centre which researches the impacts of media initiatives for young audiences, develops spinoff educational apps and products based on the programs, and implements social initiatives for underprivileged communities. The Sesame Workshop is also engaged in humanitarian action, for example, its work with child refugees.

Today, Sesame Street is one of the most famous, most widely broadcast children’s programs in the world--perhaps THE most famous and broadcast--and it continues to develop its programming and partnerships. Recent news includes the creation of a program aimed at teaching coding basics for Apple TV and a collaboration with Common Sense Media in the Device Free Dinner campaign.

Breaking codes to be better able to drive social change

Since they were created, Sesame Street and its offshoots have taken a firmly inclusive, engaged stance. Note that the show’s initial narrative linchpin was life in an alley frequented by children from all cultural backgrounds. At the time, Sesame Street was one of the first children’s TV shows to showcase diversity with its actors, in the very thick of the debate over minority representation and justice that marked American society in the 1970s.

The brand’s firmly inclusive engagement only got stronger in the ensuing decades: numerous militant stands were taken over the course of Sesame Street’s history. For example, a child with Down Syndrome was invited to co-host over 55 segments dedicated to literacy (1970s), the broadcast of a segment on motor disabilities (1990s), the 1996 creation of TV content focused on cultural exchange for young Israelis and Palestinians, the inclusion of someone with HIV in the South African version of the show (2006) and the introduction of an Afghan aspect to the show that included Zari, a militant feminist girl puppet (2016).

In 2017, Sesame Street USA added Julia, a friendly puppet with rounded features and red hair. Julia is 4. She has a brother who loves soccer, a dog named Rose, parents and friends. She doesn’t talk a lot and doesn’t always know how to analyze social situations and interactions. Julia is autistic. Sesame Street devotees know about Julia’s autism, which is discussed in the shows she’s part of. However, since she became a recurring character, her autism has never been the main focus.

In a video on Julia, the Washington Post compares her character to Abed, from the show Community, and to Brick Heck, from The Middle, fictional characters who embody and normalize autism disorders in their narrative worlds. Interviewed in the video, Ari Ne’eman, former director of the Autism Self Advocacy Network, emphasizes that one of Julia’s major contributions is that she turns autism stereotypes on their heads. Autism spectrum disorder is usually associated with social awkwardness and negative sentiments. Julia, on the other hand, is happy, aware of her needs, and in control of her reality.

Most important—and this may be the character’s most fascinating aspect—her autism disorder is a non-event. It is known and addressed, but the main focus is on Julia’s creativity, intelligence, generosity and loyalty. At most, her autism is just another part of her personality. This is the attraction of Sesame Street’s approach: not to point out the difference but rather incorporate it in a positive way and normalize it, without denying it.

50 years of impact, according to studies

A study released in early 2019 in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics looked at the 1980, 1990 and 2000 educational performances of Americans who were 6 or younger in 1969. To do this, zones where the show was guaranteed to be broadcast were compared with zones which lacked an adequate network, with the result that the show began broadcasting later on. The latter zones represented two thirds of the territory. Researchers Melissa S. Kearney and Phillip B. Levine examined the target years, and the results of surveys conducted in high schools in 1980. The study showed that students who lived in the broadcast zones were 14% more likely to be at the appropriate academic level for their age in elementary and high school. More broadly, the study stressed that these students had a greater likelihood of holding a job and earning higher wages once they became adults.

Lastly, previous studies demonstrated that the show has also had a positive impact on its young fans’ social behaviour. According to a large study of teens who grew up watching the show, published in 2000 in G is for Growing – Thirty years of Research on Children and Sesame Street, the show enhanced collaboration, kindness, and acceptance of ethnic diversity in the children who watched it.

Given the exponential growth of access to digital communications worldwide and the ever-growing dissemination of its programs and offshoots, it will be interesting to continue to look at Sesame Street’s ongoing impact on young audiences in the years to come. Hopefully, the show will always be this inspiring.

Prune Lieutier
Prune Lieutier is both an independent digital experiences producer for youth, and a young researcher in education at UQAM. As part of her work for young audiences, Prune has been in charge of many innovative projects, mostly involving a large work ecosystem, where creators, developers, researchers and broadcasters (Interactive Fonfon, The Mysterious Creatures Club, etc.) collaborated. She is also very involved in various academic research, for the Ministry of Education and Higher Education, the Quebec Research Fund-Society and Culture, and others. As part of her practice and research, she has published and given numerous conferences and papers, notably at the National Library of France in Paris, at Berkeley University or for major scientific media. Her projects for youth, led as a producer or as a young researcher, won two Boomerang Grands Prix (Best application for youth, tied with the NFB, and Content), the NUMIX Convergence Jeunesse Award, and the MITACS-National Research Council Canada Award for Commercialization, among others. Finally, Prune is the founder and general director of the children's podcast production studio La puce à l'oreille, the first of its kind in the French-speaking world.
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