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"The World According to Sesame Street"

Independent Lens

What would America be like without Sesame Street?

Luckily, we'll never have to know. Sesame Street debuted in 1969, the year that Crosby, Stills and Nash sang "Teach Your Children Well", and the innovative children's show seems to have sprung from the same love-and-peace sensibility as Graham Nash's song. The show's stated purpose was to introduce small children to the alphabet and the numbering system, but it was hardly a secret that the kids were being taught ethnic diversity, urban pride and conflict-resolution skills along the way. (It was perhaps a bigger secret that many kids like me watched the show long after we had the 26 letters and 10 digits down cold, just for the funky music and funny puppets.)

Sesame Street's social agenda is at the core of The World According to Sesame Street, a new PBS special about recent attempts to produce regional versions of the show in three high-risk areas that badly need positive imagery: Bangladesh, Kosovo and South Africa. Independently produced versions of Sesame Street are popular in several countries, but producers Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan set out to tackle three of the toughest markets in the world, and to work with local television executives to make this happen. They took live cameras with them, reality-show style, so we can see the results for ourselves.

We begin in Bangladesh, the massively populated and strife-torn nation on the Ganges delta, where the producers are greeted with smiles and everybody seems excited to get to work. It almost seems too easy, until the political fissures in this country start to appear (the production company selected to create the show turns out to be on the wrong side of the political fence, and violent incidents on the streets of Dhaka create sudden setbacks) and the show's fate becomes uncertain.

Kosovo is a different story, and the scenes in this war-ravaged province of Serbia provide the most sobering moments in this show. A long-running conflict between ethnic Albanians and Serbians is still raging in Kosovo, and a meeting between producers Knowlton and Costigan and a roomful of well-dressed and apparently professional local television executives is painful to watch. The local executives shoot down most of their ideas and smirk grimly at others. In an earlier sequence, the producers worried that the local executives would simply "humor them", and that's exactly what happens in Kosovo.

To their credit, Knowlton and Costigan refuse to give up, even though they are given little encouragement to go on.

The effort in South Africa is designed to address the HIV/AIDS crisis, and the tight focus on a specific purpose helps make this venture go more smoothly. The team's biggest success is the Bangladesh show, which finally takes root among national politicians and local actors and puppet artisans, and proceeds to broadcast. The World According to Sesame Street ends with the delightful vision of Halum the Tiger and other great new characters appearing on an actual television as the exhausted production team finally gets a chance to sit back and grin at their hard-won success. Whether they will ever achieve similar outcomes in Kosovo and elsewhere remains unknown, but I know they'll keep trying.

Comments

I watched the World according to Sesame Street last night (Oct. 26th) and found it fascinating and very exciting. My 2 sons grew up with Sesame Street as their children have. The values, outlook on life, humor are so important. We need all the positive examples for all children to learn about in the unhappy situations all over the world. Thank you so much for all your hard work. PS It would be fantastic if you could come out with a DVD of selected programs from the different countries (with subtitles). I would think most people - not just children would enjoy seeing what other children play with - what pets - games - etc. I am thinking of the shot you showed of the group of boys walking across the rope bridge and diving off into the river -'cool'- as the kids say. Again Thank you and good luck!! Suzanne Rudolf

I, too, enjoyed The World According to Sesame Street. The many successes of Children's Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), both here and abroad, make for an important story. It's amazing how many countries have made use of Sesame Street and the Independent Lens program did a good job of explaining how and why that has happened. And it left me with a smile. Thanks.

I am from Mexico and also I grew up with Sesame street (Plaza SÚsamo). I enjoyed the Latinamerican version of the show and I can tell you, I learned and enjoyed the show as any child in the world. The show had magical moments for me when they show the life of children from other parts of the world and other ways of life. When I lived in USA four years I also had a lot of fun learning the english names for all characters. Thanks a lot for making possible a show like this and please keep it for the future. I am sure that I would watch it with my children

I was really fascinated by the efforts to make Sesame Street in such volatile parts of the world, and the efforts of diplomacy made by Sesame Street producers to get it done. I'm sure Sesame Street producers could have taken the lazy way out -- simply dubbing the U.S. version or not bothering to do the show in countries where they were not perceived as welcome -- but they did not. It really shows that the producers have a passion that goes far beyond making money.


Your effort to share fundamental human values through Sesame street seem to be accepted in the three chosen areas.

There is a terrible need for global community and shared basic values.

Our world peace may depend of prophetic vision, gifted individuals who can speak to a global mind, and organized funding.

I hope that more people like you will come foreward with books,movies, games and personal contact,to instill the values of communication, tolerance, and value for life. Maybe the next generation can be kept from nuclear extinction.

I teach International Business at the college level. I watched the initial airing of this show and immediately saw multiple connections between the production and my curriculum.

Aside from the worthwhile goal of exporting Sesame Street's educational value, the documentary taught my students about how products must be customized for international markets, the need for cross-cultural understanding, the importance of understanding and effectively navigating host country political and legal systems, international market segmentation, the logistics of international project management, and more. I assigned viewing it and writing an essay about it as an extra credit assignment. More than half of the class watched, and those who heard their classmates discussing it wish they had.

Personally, I enjoyed reminiscing about how much I enjoyed watching Sesame Street as a child. Thanks to all who had a hand in bringing this project to life. Sesame Street continues to educate children and adults alike.

I too grew up on Sesame Street. However my growing up stage began in 1970 when I returned from Vietnam. I was indeed growing up all over again for I had been away from civilization so long that I had to learn to look both ways to keep from walking straight away from a conversation and stepping right out into traffic. I had to learn to understand the world that I had been away from so long and the characters on Sesame Street were there to help me. I was probably the only person in my university reading lab that arranged their morning schedule around their local PBS showing of this show that helped me learn to reidentify with life and begin to grow once again.

Now you may think of this as a spoof. You would be so wrong. Music was all new, space travel was all new, the way people related to one another had changed so radicaly that there too I needed to grow and learn all over again. I had a bitter outlook on life and the characters helped me learn not to take myself so seriously, to be more understanding, more tolerant, have more patience and yes recover. Now I still had my adult problems (still do)
and more than a few hang ups and faults a plenty. I can't wonder how unfortunate I might have been had I not started out identifying with Oscar and eventually being identifyed with that loveable green frog.

It seemed that even in the beginning our politicians and public figures enjoyed their chance to be part of the learning expierence. Do they still do that? We as returning soilders were younger, it seems, than our returning soilders are now. Could Sesame Street still warm their hearts too? Will people continue to have such an international voice of encouragement teaching into the future that we as people are pretty much all the same? I hope the answers will remain positive so that through educational entertainment childern can learn (parents too) what our governments fail to teach.

I watched the entire show, and though I found the angle unexpectedly intriguing, I couldn't resist a sense of being ripped-off. I was hoping for more nostalgia. How about something for Me/us? It was all about them.

Hey, interesting story & all, but why not do half the show about their own interests, pursuits, Global social responsibilities, Politics, etc, and half of it for those of us who grew up with it?

No doubt, this expectation was partly fueled by the fact that the show was directly preceeded by a documentary on The Electric Company (which was nothing short of nostalgic).

Granted: The Electric Company is yesterday, and Sesame is ongoing. It just felt like "our cause is far greater than your entertainment - look at US".

I don't mind thier story, but throw me a bone or two. Producer/Director's Perogotive, I know. I have to say that I was partly entertained, and partly bored to tears, disappointed, and perturbed.

Anyone else get that same feeling?

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