How Sesame Street Changed the World

Thursday, May 28th, 2009

Sesame Street is celebrating its 40th anniversary. In describing how Sesame Street changed the world, Lisa Guernsey also shares a surprising stat — or number of the day: 15

That, shockingly, is where Nielsen says Sesame Street ranks among the top children’s shows on the air. Some months, it does even worse. Ask a preschooler who her favorite TV character is, and chances are she’ll say Dora, Curious George or, heaven help us, SpongeBob. We know it doesn’t seem nice to point out that the granddaddy of children’s television is regularly beaten up by a girl who talks to her backpack, but these are desperate times. The Children’s Television Workshop (now called Sesame Workshop) produces only 26 episodes a year now, down from a high of 130. The workshop itself recently announced it was laying off 20 percent of its staff as the recession continues to take a toll on nonprofit arts organizations.

Apparently it was a “speculative leap” to imagine television with educational content — which strikes me as quite odd, because every new technology is greeted as a new medium for education, when, of course, that’s not what the mass market demands. Anyway, it worked:

The results were pretty immediate. The first season in 1969 set out to teach children to count from one to 10, but it became clear that kids as young as 2 could make it to 20. (The show now hits 100, counting by tens.)
The most impressive feedback, however, came from the kids themselves — or at least from their test scores. No show to this day has probed its effects on kids as thoroughly as Sesame Street, which plans to spend more than $770,000 in 2009 on its department of education and research. When people think of Sesame Street as the essence of educational television, what they don’t realize is how much the show has educated the educators. “Before Sesame Street, kindergartens taught very little,” says Cooney, “and suddenly masses of children were coming in knowing letters and numbers.” Independent research found that children who regularly watch Sesame Street gained more than non-viewers on tests of letter and number recognition, vocabulary and early math skills. One study, in 2001, revealed that the show’s positive effects on reading and achievement lasted through high school. “It totally changed parental thinking about television,” says Daniel Anderson, a psychologist at the University of Massachusetts.

One of the most striking elements of children’s television is how unambiguously left-wing it is, and Sesame Street led the revolution:

From the start, Sesame targeted lower-income, urban kids — the ones who lived on streets with garbage cans sitting in front of their rowhouse apartments. The show arrived on the heels of riots in Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Chester Pierce, a Harvard professor who founded the Black Psychiatrists of America, was one of the show’s original advisers, and he was acutely aware of the racism his 3-year-old daughter would face in that hostile time. “It was intentional from the beginning to show different races living together,” says David Kleeman, executive director of the American Center for Children and Media. “They were very conscious of the modeling that kids and parents would take away from that.”

This didn’t go over well in Mississippi — but you can never be left-wing enough to escape criticism from further to the left:

Not everyone thinks that Sesame Street is doing right by kids. Latino groups have criticized it for not having a Hispanic character in its early years. The show only introduced a major female Muppet in 1992. (Prairie Dawn was too annoying to count as a role model.) It has also been criticized by Ralph Nader and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood for selling out its characters in too many licensing deals.

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