PRINT February 1990


Sesame Street

IMAGINE E. T. BACK at the house on the hill again. He’s left the refrigerator door open, again, and the motor hums. Then, there he stands, in front of the television set, slowly turning the dial, looking for something or someone he remembers from his last visit. He stops, wide-eyed, then blinks hullo at the furry blue monster that he had in mind. The creature in the box responds with a rousing soliloquy about the number 9, which then flashes repeatedly on the screen.

E. T. has decided to return to earth to learn about America, Baudrillard-style, through Sesame Street. Along with millions about his size (in the two-to-five-year-old range), and their parents, he has turned on his public television station this morning at 8:30 (EST) and settled back to watch this hour-long production of the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW). Unlike Jean Baudrillard, however, who constantly compares and contrasts the view from Europe to America and vice versa, E. T. is not a visitor from one culture to another. Rather, he is in some future (his instant affinity for all things electronic indicates this), as are all our children. A friendly media monster with no preconceptions about education, he has a passion for learning equal to our clear-eyed preschoolers.

Big Bird and friends might, on the other hand, look out from Sesame Street at E. T., keenly aware of the new alien on the block. Yet media creatures all, they represent value systems that are flip sides of the same coin: a film and a television series, contrasting depictions of America’s children. On the film side, suburban utopia gone haywire, as in the disintegrated family life that E. T. stumbles upon while popping Reese’s Pieces; and on the television side, inner-city urban decay that miraculously generates what Baudrillard has characterized as “intense, electrifying, turbulent, and vital” life on the street. The former offers an escape, through entertainment, from the banality and alienation of uniform middle-class life, the other a haven through education from the potential violence and disorder of metropolitan existence.

Both apply their most powerful techniques and resources to attracting young audiences. The movie uses old-fashioned narrative enchantment, as in The Wizard of Oz, to transport kids to a world beyond adults, to achieve what Bruno Bettelheim calls “the happiness and fulfillment which are the ultimate consolation of the fairy tale.” Similarly, the television show uses the most sophisticated commercial technology and a fast-paced, highly colored magazine format to depict frenetic—and often unruly—life on the street. Sesame Street’s writers, however, must direct their creativity toward “the common good,” to design skits with drama and humor that contain moral, ethical, and cultural punchlines, and where every image on the screen carries a meaningful, if not always perfectly understood, educational message.

But it must be remembered that our children, the current two-to-five-year-old recipients of the above-described fare, are now second-generation media children. Their conversation is peppered with terms such as “fast forward”; they might watch a favorite movie for the 20th time, despite being only four years old; they may take a video (like The Black Stallion) to bed instead of a soft, cuddly teddy bear. Indeed, they are already quite different from their predecessors in that they have a far more active response to television; after all, they are VCR hams—if they don’t like this morning’s Sesame Street, they’ll put on Dumbo
instead (and note that they are able to work the VCR). They also consider computers, and E. T. for that matter, as natural elements in their environment.

The first Sesame Street season, which debuted in November 1969, aired in a very different climate. (The show is now celebrating its 20th anniversary, and even New York’s Museum of Modern Art is mounting a videotape exhibition homage.) It began with a brave, politically correct, and utopian vision straight out of a ’60s belief system. It sought to do right what all the other children’s programs did wrong; no “grown-up” leading the children by the hand, explaining in a childish voice what they had seen and what they were about to see, as in Captain Kangaroo; no neat little white middle-class suburban living room set in a homogeneous neighborhood as in Leave It to Beaver; and no schoolrooms with teachers taking the studio scholars through their paces, as in Romper Room. Instead a TV show that moves from sequence to sequence like so many electronic flash cards, allowing for subliminal cross-referencing of material. Instead an inner-city street, where racial and ethnic groups, monsters, children, and the handicapped—even the garbage, in the form of a very difficult character, Oscar the Grouch—are all given equal rights. Instead a way of teaching that exploits the medium of television itself, that combines vast research into educational philosophy and the development of “curriculum goals” with studies as to how children actually watch television. In short, Sesame Street represented the conviction that television could be both entertaining and beneficial for children.

Which was where Joan Ganz Cooney, cofounder of Sesame Street (with Lloyd Morrisett, then an executive with the Carnegie Foundation), came in. That inner-city children arrived at school less prepared than their middle-class peers was a known fact (and a real concern for Cooney); what it would take to give them some basic tools, while allowing them to use their unique emotional and intellectual resources, was not known. But having observed that preschool children memorized often-repeated trivia, especially commercials, from their daily TV viewing, Cooney put two and two together and decided to work on the principle of short, often-repeated segments as the chief means for informing children. Three years of extensive research and testing that began in 1966 with teams of specialists in child psychology, education, and television, of writers, artists, and musicians, producers and executives (and $8 million), resulted in a season’s worth of 130 programs. Success was instant. By the end of the season, skeptics and producers alike were amazed by test results showing “that children who watched [Sesame Street] made cognitive gains two and a half times greater than those of children who didn’t.”

The basic ingredients for the show were established at the start: a one-hour program made up of 20 to 30 segments, each with a specific pedagogical goal that would then be stated and restated throughout the show, using a variety of proven commercial-television techniques––live-action film, animation, musical segments, puppet pieces, and neighborhood meetings on “the street”—as various parts of the whole. With Jim Henson’s muppets Big Bird, Oscar, the endlessly bickering odd couple Bert and Ernie (in the school of Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and Matthau and Lemmon), Cookie Monster, and Grover, and a sprinkling of humans, the first season began at the beginning: counting from one to ten, letter recognition, geometric forms, and “concepts of relativity” such as ordering and classification, as well as “social skills” of fair play, cooperation, and “self-respect.” Today, with the program in its 21st season, the ’80s post-Sesame Street generation of toddlers counts to 40; they “leave the street” to visit Peru or Japan, a farm in Iowa, or a factory in Mexico; they might hear some Spanish, wander through American history, acquire musical appreciation or computer basics; learn about nutrition and dental care, environmental politics—conserve water, don’t litter, recycle—even about facts of life, like death.

Not surprisingly, Sesame Street is one of the most highly praised, awarded, and celebrated children’s shows in television’s history. It is also highly marketed. Big Bird, Kermit the Frog, Bert and Ernie, and Cookie Monster take turns at running the business side of things. They stare out of bookshelves, video stores, and computer software manuals, and stuffed puppets fill millions of homes. Needless to say, with CTW, this marketing strategy takes on an intelligent entrepreneurial tone, since the funds generated contribute to the continuing independence of the producers, while the peripheral books and software are also part of an extensive outreach program supervised by the Community Education Services, a division of CTW that works directly with teachers and parents in key, often barely accessible areas, including prisons, the rural South, Appalachia, Harlem, or Watts, showing them how to use the program as a starting point for a larger curriculum.

Education and entertainment, art and commerce: these are the unions that keep the Sesame Street family together, and that divide supporters and detractors of the show. For despite the almost saintly aspects of those involved with Sesame Street, there has been strong criticism. The sugar-coating of ghetto life was attacked from the start as an unrealistic model. The show has also been criticized for being too much about the “closed circuit” of television itself, so that turning on Sesame Street has often felt like a week’s review of some of the most popular commercial TV series. There was Miami Mice, with pastel-clad puppets in mirrored glasses speed-boating through miniature canals and bays; there was a takeoff of Life Styles of the Rich and Famous; and there was (and still is) the hugely irritating Guy Smiley, who perfectly mimics the generic shriek and histrionics of the game-show host.

Still others take issue with education disguised as entertainment because it gives children absurd expectations about the learning process. Neil Postman, in a text on “teaching as an amusing activity,” objects to the fact that Sesame Street promotes a “television style of learning” that is antithetical to book learning. It is, for him, one more nail in the coffin being prepared by the media for the death of American culture. With its “cute puppets, celebrities, catchy tunes, and rapid-fire editing,” Sesame Street teaches children, above all, to love television. It contributes to the media’s tendency to redefine cultural life as a “perpetual round of entertainments” and provides yet another example of Postman’s theory of the “Huxleyan prophecy”: “Big Brother does not watch us, by his choice. We watch him, by ours.”

But most children, at a guess, do not confuse sitting in front of a box at home with being in a class of 25 children and a teacher at school. Nor are all children addicted to television, or to Sesame Street for that matter. Some prefer Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, as do their parents, because it is quiet and it occurs in real time. Mr. Rogers intentionally refuses all commercial-TV standards for holding children’s attention. Rather, he is determined to reach them through his consistent presence on the screen, characterized by a calm and emphatic honesty. There is nothing hip or pop here, no rush to sophistication, and no invasion of the media onto his set. Instead there is a frequent reminder to his viewers that he comes to them as a picture on a television monitor while they, real people, sit watching him at home.

So that makes two acceptable shows for preschoolers, which is more than enough for any one day. Ultimately, neither Sesame Street nor Mr. Rogers can be the miracle cure for this country’s educational ills. The television set cannot hug the lonely latchkey child; it cannot bring home the father who deserted, or the working mother in business suit and sneakers. Moreover, northern days are short and dark, and indoor urban life has its constraints; the hour on Sesame Street is an intrinsic and important part of the American winter landscape.

RoseLee Goldberg, author of Performance Art from Futurism to the Present, lectures on art and the media at New York University. She is the mother of Zoe (eight) and Pierce (four).

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