It spawned ‘edutainment’
Before the Sesame Street gang came on the scene, TV for kids was an educational wasteland.
“[The show] was a total breakthrough,” says Daniel Anderson, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has worked as a consultant for the show. “It was the first program that really did extensive curriculum development based on the best education and child development expertise at the time.”
It also proved that TV can be a powerful medium for learning, he says. Studies show kids who watch Sesame Street , which gives lessons in digestible pieces that build on one another, do better in school. And while Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood made a clear cut to the Land of Make Believe, Sesame Street created a refreshing fusion of imagination and real life, a quality that encourages kids to learn, says Elizabeth Morley, principal at the Institute of Child Study Laboratory School at the University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE). “This wasn’t adults talking to children, these were characters they could engage with,” she says. “A cookie monster! What child can’t relate to that?”
It helped kids with the social world
When Big Bird cried over a breakup with a friend, kids shed a tear along with him. And when mom and pop Snuffalupagus divorced, children from broken homes could relate to their daughter Snuffie. Sesame Street has been quick to turn social travails of the day into lessons for its tiny viewers, Prof. Anderson says.
When the actor who played grandfatherly grocer Mr. Hooper died in the 1980s, Sesame Street writers included it in the show as a lesson about death. “They could have had him move away or they could have just ignored the fact that he was missing,” Prof. Anderson says. The show addressed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the recent financial crisis and even the obesity epidemic.
While teaching the ABCs and 123s are the key to the show’s success, lessons in emotional intelligence have been invaluable, Ms. Morley adds. “In any of the characters we could find the normal childhood range of emotions,” she says. “If we went back through the 40 years we would find almost any social issue was addressed.”
It helped fuel marketing to kids
While the not-for-profit television show was designed to sell kids knowledge, not stuff, the success of Sesame Street and its licensed characters made the kiddie market more accessible to advertisers, says Dimitri Christakis, a Seattle-based pediatrician and author of The Elephant in the Living Room: Make Television Work for Your Kids . “The interest was always there, but they provided the vehicle,” he says. “They created characters that got kids’ attention. That had instant recognition and that provided the hook that advertisers would need.”
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, companies started launching shows such as He-Man and G.I. Joe to sell their products, says Dale Kunkel, a professor of communication at the University of Arizona who studies children and media. “They’d said ‘You shouldn’t be criticizing us, because we’re just like Sesame Street . They promote their characters and we’re just doing the same thing.’”
While Sesame Street advertises its huge cupboard of toys and products (Tickle Me Elmo, anyone?), there’s a measured effort to only market them to adults, Dr. Kunkel says. “One place you’ll see them advertised … is in the late-night talk show [time slots].”
It sparked controversy
Could Sesame Street ‘s ABCs spell ADHD? The show was one of the first to experiment with educational segments in bite-sized pieces – a move made based on research that showed kids are very attentive to TV ads, says Shalom Fisch, a New Jersey-based children’s educational media consultant who worked at Sesame Street for 15 years and co-edited G Is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street . Educators and parents voiced concerned that the fast-paced, quick-change approach was eating away at attention spans, but that’s never borne out in research, Mr. Fisch says.
“ Sesame Street has slowed down its pacing dramatically,” says Dr. Christakis, who has researched the impact of television on children’s attention spans. “It wasn’t a light switch, but if you look at pacing today versus 20 years ago, you’ll notice there’s a dramatic difference.”
Controversy also touched Sesame Street in 2006 with the launch of Sesame Beginnings, a series of episodes for kids under 2. The American Pediatric Society advises against television for tots and infants and the Canadian Paediatric Society is expected to follow suit.
It appeals to parents
That Billy Idol nod in “Rebel L” wasn’t meant for the kids. Sesame Street has intentionally won parents over with pop culture references and hip adult guests (think Monsterpiece Theatre and Leslie Feist’s 1234 sing-a-long). “ Sesame Street knows from its research that the child viewer learns more when they watch with a parent or adult guardian,” Dr. Kunkel says.
While Sesame Street set the bar for other educational shows, even high-quality ones such as Blue’s Clues or Dora the Explorer , don’t have that same parent-luring content, Dr. Kunkel adds. But Sesame ‘s educational merits have led some parents to rely too heavily on Bert and Ernie as babysitters, says Matthew Johnson, media education specialist with the Media Awareness Network, a Canadian non-profit organization.
Linda Cameron, an associate professor of early childhood education at OISE, says she was initially wary of the show when her kids were young. “I was hesitant because of the pacing, of the overstimulation, of what that might do to kids’ brains,” she says. “But I fell in love. I fell in love with Ernie and Bert and Big Bird, they became my friends.”