"The World According to 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.