On Sesame Street, It’s All Show
It would be hard to think of another modern institution that has touched as many children as Sesame Street. In Television-land, where shows have a shelf life as brief as that of a carton of eggs, this one is still going strong after a quarter-century. During that time it has been broadcast to more than 120 million children in 130 nations from Israel to Mozambique, making it—according to the Children’s Television Workshop, the show’s producer—“the largest single teacher of young children in the world.” In the United States, Sesame Street’s popularity is staggering; 77 percent of American preschool children from all areas, ethnic groups, and income levels watch the show once a week or more. In many locales they can take their pick of three or more broadcasts a day. “We’re like the British empire,” one of the show’s creators quipped presciently during the first season. “Someday the sun will never set on Sesame Street.”
Winner of 58 Emmys, two Peabody Awards, and four Parents’ Choice Awards, subject of retrospectives at the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art, Sesame Street is as revered as it is popular. From its earliest years, when U.S. commissioner of education Sidney Marland proclaimed the show “among the supreme revelations of my 30 years in education,” to recently, when John Wright of the University of Kansas’s Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children recommended it as “part of a balanced breakfast,” experts have pronounced the show “quality children’s programming,” a completely different breed from Mighty Morphing Power Rangers or Animaniacs.Through its role as teacher of young children, and because of its much vaunted racial and ethnic sensitivity, it often serves as the national symbol of compassion, as in the recent memorable performance of Bert and Ernie, directed by Representative Nita Lowey, at a congressional hearing over funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
So it comes as some surprise when you actually sit down to watch this marvel. Don’t expect a show that, like a good book, inspires children’s developing emotional or moral life, that engages their imaginations, that piques their curiosity about the world or enriches their experience of language. Sesame Street is an educational revelation, all right—the kind we’ve experienced so often recently in depressing reports about the declining verbal abilities of American students. If “television eats books,” as novelist Larry Woiwode once wrote, Sesame Street is the Cookie Monster.