Big Bird Celebrates Big Day with ‘Sesame Street’ Anniversary

November 10, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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On the 40th anniversary of 'Sesame Street," Jeffrey Brown explores how the classic PBS program has helped shape childhood education in the United States and around the world.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a milestone for Big Bird and the world of children’s television. Jeffrey Brown has our story.

JEFFREY BROWN: This morning’s “Sesame Street” program was brought to you by the number 40…

ACTOR: That’s a huge number.

JEFFREY BROWN: … as the show celebrated its 40th anniversary with the help of Michelle Obama…

MICHELLE OBAMA, first lady: Hi, everyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: … who, as it happens, is the first first lady to have grown up watching the program.

MICHELLE OBAMA: If you eat all these healthy foods, you are going to grow up to be big and strong, just like me.

ACTOR: And me. Well, I’m still growing.

JEFFREY BROWN: When “Sesame Street” premiered back in 1969, with its urban street setting, its cast of adult and young actors, and, of course, its Muppets created by Jim Henson, it was immediately hailed as a breakthrough in educational television for children. Several generations of young people have now grown up watching, as “Sesame Street” taught the alphabet, counting, and much more, and, at times took on tough subjects, from the death of a beloved cast member, to the current flu pandemic.

ACTOR: And the first thing you have to do to stay healthy is always wash your hands.

ACTOR: Come on. Wash your hands with Elmo.

JEFFREY BROWN: Along the way, celebrities have regularly mixed in with a diverse cast of characters, politicians, actors, musicians, even our own Robert MacNeil, who, in 1988, reported on Cookiegate.

ROBERT MACNEIL: Why did you eat the cookies?

ACTOR: Well, me glad you asked that question, Mr. MacLehrer.


ACTOR: Whatever.

JEFFREY BROWN: The program also became a worldwide phenomenon. It now appears in more than 140 countries, incorporating local characters and themes. In South Africa, for example, an HIV-positive Muppet was introduced in 2002. At the same time, the program’s success spawned new children’s’ educational programming. And, 40 years later, the world of children’s TV has changed vastly, on public television and on cable and commercial networks.

ACTOR: Come on. Vamonos.

Concerns over TV watching

JEFFREY BROWN: And, while all that was happening, concerns about the impact of so much programming have continued. A recent Nielsen study reported that, on average, children from 2 to 5 spend nearly 25 hours a week watching TV, the highest figure on record, and seven more hours watching DVDs or sitting in front of a computer. Children's advocacy groups have also raised alarms over the commercialization of programming, most recently over a deal between Discovery and toymaker Hasbro to form a children's TV network.

Amid all the competition, "Sesame Street"'s viewership has fallen. It recently ranked 15th among children's TV shows. To attract more viewers, the show's producers have greatly expanded its Web presence with character bios, postcards to send, and games.

ACTOR: Take it from a frog. Always look before you leap.

ACTOR: Oh, thanks, frog.

ACTOR: You're welcome.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, 40 years later, the Muppets still dance, sing, and teach, and the show very much still goes on.

ACTOR: This is Murray saying see you next time on the "Street." Peace.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now more on Big Bird and beyond in children's TV. Gary Knell is president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization that produces "Sesame Street." Lisa Guernsey is director of the Early Education Initiative at the New America Foundation and author of "Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five." And welcome to both of you.

GARY KNELL: Thank you.

LISA GUERNSEY, Author, "Into the Minds of Babes: How Screen Time Affects Children from Birth to Age Five": Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gary, now, how much and in what ways has the program changed, particularly in light of all the changes, the larger changes, in television?

GARY KNELL: Well, Jeff, the show in 1969 was really revolutionary. I mean, the founders, Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, saw that commercials were teaching kids. And the question -- and they tried to make messages now, instead of about sugared cereal, about letters and numbers. And it took the world by storm. And now 140 countries later, and in many, many different parts of media, "Sesame Street" has grown, and it has had to change with the times over 40 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: But how do you do -- how do you stay relevant? I mean, we just saw Michelle Obama talking today about vegetables. So, there's an issue of the day. How do you stay relevant? How does the -- is it still based on research that you have? Or...

GARY KNELL: It is. "Sesame Street" is the only children's show that is produced every single year. We produce 26 hours of U.S. programming every year and some 300 episodes around the world. And, every year -- we call this the 40th experimental season of "Sesame Street." We actually bring in curriculum advisers who can teach us about the relevant issues. It may be childhood obesity. This season now is about children in nature and healthy eating habits. So, every year, there's a different curriculum that we focus on and keep current in that way.

Standards are falling

JEFFREY BROWN: Lisa Guernsey, we're talking about this vastly different world of children's television programming. How do you see the range in terms of quality? I mean, for example, how much education is there today in educational programming?

LISA GUERNSEY: There's a very long spectrum. And there's still not anywhere near enough educational programming along that spectrum. When -- when "Sesame Street" got started 40 years ago, there were maybe one or two other shows that were really aimed at kids, or maybe even saying they were good for children. Today, we're seeing dozens of programs that are aimed right at that 2-5 age range. And their quality is just all over the place. So, "Sesame Street" really has set the standard in terms of how to research a program and really how to kind of dig in to, what are kids understanding from it? Are they actually capturing and cognitively understanding what we're talking about? And, unfortunately, we have not seen that many other programs doing the same thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: You have had to fight -- you have to fight your way through a vastly changed...

GARY KNELL: Well, as Lisa said, there were two preschool shows in 1988, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street." Today, there are 54 preschool shows. So, it doesn't matter how great you are. Your market share is going to go down, so to speak. So, we have had to make sure that we are relevant. We do a lot of targeted outreach programs, and try to stay in the news with cultural icons, like Michelle Obama, who can deliver sort of a co-viewing appeal with parents, which has made a big difference as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another issue, quantity issue, is, as I mentioned in the setup there, the number of hours that young kids watch TV.

LISA GUERNSEY: Yes. And -- and it's pretty high. I mean, the 25 hours a week number doesn't -- doesn't shock me, honestly. As a -- I'm a mother of a 5 and a 7-year-old. I have been watching the landscape for -- for many years now. And what I see is that parents and families are really kind of stretched and are looking for opportunities where they can just say, OK, I need a break. I have got to go unload the dishwasher. I have got to make this phone call. I have got to, like, hassle with my insurance company. I'm just going to kind of put the kids in front of the TV for a little bit. We're also seeing that there's so many programs over 24 hours of the day now that kids can have access to. And, so, there's societal pressures that are -- that are at work here. And there's also just the quantity of programming. I wouldn't say, though -- we still don't exactly how much worse it is than even the earliest days of TV. I mean...

Content matters

JEFFREY BROWN: Do we know about the -- how much more do we know about the impact these days? I mean, you talked to researchers for your book.


JEFFREY BROWN: The impact on kids. So, now we're still talking 2 to 5 at this point.

LISA GUERNSEY: What we're seeing, actually, is that there needs to be a real distinction between background television and foreground TV. So, there's some real evidence of negative impact of background TV. That means shows that are just on and kids 2 to 5 may be playing around them. They might be running up and down the stairs, but they are not actually watching them. What we're finding is -- and -- and researchers at many universities have been looking at this kind of question, but particularly at the University of Massachusetts -- they're finding that children's play patterns are disrupted, and the way that they interact with their -- their peers and parents is disrupted. So, what we need to do is, parents need to be thinking much more about, OK, when I put the TV on for a purpose I need to understand that let's really look at the content. Is it educational? Are there moments that kids can actually get something out of it? And then can we turn it off instead off? Instead of just simply kind of keeping it on as a background, almost wallpaper for children.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gary, you took some heat when you -- when you created some programs for under age 2.


JEFFREY BROWN: The American Academy of Pediatrics has long said that children under 2 should not watch any television.

GARY KNELL: Right. Well, we -- we have never really designed a show up until recently for any kids under the age of 2 because of that. But we know, through the Kaiser Family Foundation, that two out of three kids under the age of 2 are watching TV every single day. And one out of three have a TV in their own bedrooms. So, what we looked at was, could we create something that was developmentally appropriate for kids, not at six months, but kids who are slightly under 2, with parenting skills built in to make something out of it. It was an experiment. Some of it really worked. Some of it didn't work. But we're trying to address the fact that moms and dads are putting their kids in front of TV at a very, very young age.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask you, lastly, about the...


JEFFREY BROWN: ... the commercialization issue. Has it -- has it -- has it crept up and gotten worse, in a sense, where kids appear to be being targeted to buy products through these programs? Or -- that's always been with us in some sense.

LISA GUERNSEY: Right. That's right.

JEFFREY BROWN: I remember it from my own -- from my own youth.

Walking advertising line

LISA GUERNSEY: Well, what we're seeing is, there's kind of a blurring. It used to be that we would see, you know -- first of all, it was complete no-no, according to some regulation, although things have been loosened since then, particular in the cable world -- to actually kind of -- quote -- "sell a toy" within a TV program for kids. But the commercials around that program really kind of, you know, it's anyone's -- it's anyone's guess what they might be trying to get kids to nag their parents about. Today, it is not so much that. It's that the characters within the programs become so engaging to children. I mean, I have seen this in my own kids, right? There's some they just really become attached to, that they want to then buy every single product they ever see with that character emblazoned upon it. And -- and it can be tough for parents to kind of say, no, we're not going to get this today; we're not going to buy this today, that we -- can't we get a lunch box that is just a nice green lunch box that doesn't have a character on it? And it just -- it takes a lot of discipline on the part of parents today.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's our last minute, but how do you walk this fine line, because you have lots of -- you...


JEFFREY BROWN: You know, everybody wants an Elmo. And -- you have also had -- you took some criticism when you had the sponsorship from McDonald's at a time when one of your themes is healthy -- healthy eating.

GARY KNELL: Yes. Well, the Tickle Me Elmos of the world actually pay for the research and production that we do. So, we try to have a virtuous circle, where those revenues pay for the programming. It's important that we do not market to kids. And I think that's where we do draw the line. We draw that line as a distinction between other companies that really do go at them. We do not advertise to preschoolers. You will not see our characters promoting any sponsors' products. So, we're really out there trying to make a distinction here, and not exploit very young children, which is what we have got to be careful of.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will leave it there, 40 years of "Sesame Street" and other issues. Gary Knell and Lisa Guernsey, thank you both very much.


GARY KNELL: Thank you.