50 years of Sesame Street: how TV's 'most important show' evolved for the YouTube era
Sesame Street's core mission remains unchanged, 50 years since premiering on American screens. But, as its executive producer tells The Drum, the show's creators have actively embraced change when it comes to structure, storytelling and distribution in the digital age.
“Sesame Street and, in other ways, [its sequel] The Electric Company are, with lapses, the most intelligent and important programs in television."
So wrote film critic Renata Adler in The New Yorker back in 1972, three years after the program that pioneered TV as an educational medium was first broadcast in the US.
America was a different place when Adler was unpicking the guest appearance of civil rights activist Jesse Jackson as something that “may have been maddening” for many in a country still unnerved by the concept of integration.
Her attempts to depict characters now built into the modern western psyche included descriptions of a “seven-foot, yellow-feathered bird who is subject to depressions” and a blue-furred “junkie” with an appetite for cookies. Elmo, one of Sesame Street’s most-loved characters, wouldn't make his on-screen debut until later that year.
Yet Adler's academic assessment of a show for pre-schoolers does manage to capture its central raison d’être and explain why it is one of the longest-running programs in the world: it portrays an imagined place that is both a culturally integrated utopia and a gritty Manhattan neighborhood, a place where people die, Muppets feel deep sadness and characters carry HIV diagnoses.
On top of these hard truths and life lessons, it teaches kids how to read, write and count.
“The company is designed to help kids be smarter, stronger and kinder – that’s our mission statement,” says Ben Lehmann, the show’s executive producer. He’s referring to Sesame Workshop, the non-profit brand that grew from Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett’s network TV show into a fully fledged media empire comprising theme parks, ebooks, merchandise and more.
“The grander purpose of Sesame Workshop is, of course, to help children get ready for their formal education. But it’s not just about getting them ready for their formal education – it’s also about getting them ready for life.”
When The Drum speaks to Lehmann, he and his team are in the middle of a summer celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street. The programming includes a 10-city roadshow and a special musical episode to kick off the new season.
Earlier in the year, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio officially changed the name of the intersection between West 63rd Street and Broadway to Sesame Street, and the Kennedy Center bestowed one of its annual honors on the program in July. It was the first time a TV show had made the cut.
“To me, it’s not something to shy away from – 50 is a milestone and I think everybody around the company is extremely proud,” says Lehmann. “We wanted to honor our past and our rich history and to celebrate kids and the importance of giving them a strong start. But we also wanted to be forward looking and think about what the next 50 years of Sesame Street will look like.”
Since its inception in 1969, the show’s storylines haven’t deviated beyond the key mission of its founders. However, the workshopping process behind these plot points has evolved to be one of the most complex forms of data-driven content creation in the industry.
The advice of child psychologists, quant and qual testing, viewership data and post-screening analysis all inform the paths that the show and all of the Workshop products will take for each season, including the season’s central ‘curriculum’ – the overarching theme that guides its plotlines.
Season 50, which will air on Sesame Street’s dual homes of HBO and PBS, will explore themes of “oops and ahas”, for instance.
“It’s about kids in the US right now being very stressed,” explains Lehmann. “They’re over-scheduled frequently, they have a lot of pressure on them and there is kind of a fear of failure. We wanted to destigmatize that and put the fun back into learning.”
Developments in child psychology have also helped evolve the structure of Sesame Street. For the first 40 years, prevailing academic wisdom taught show producers that kids were not capable of following an extended narrative. So, episodes were written as a series of sketches, says Lehmann.
“But about 10 years back, developmental experts realized that no, kids actually love narrative storytelling and can follow a longer narrative of up to 10 to 12 minutes,” he explains.
“So we’ve changed the show in response to those findings. We always start with an introduction that tells the viewer what is coming today and then we’ll go into a meaty narrative about it – a real story with a beginning, middle and an end – that kids can follow.”
It is interesting that Sesame Street’s shift to a style of storytelling reliant on viewers sitting down and investing 30 minutes of their time has come as media at large is fragmented into snackable portions, such as 15-second Instagram stories and 10-minute web series.
Meanwhile, episodes of rival kids TV shows, such as the ubiquitous Peppa Pig, hardly ever run for more than 10 minutes at a time.
The playoff between long- and short-form content is a “balancing act” for Lehmann, who recognizes kids’ appetite for the latter. This is true now more than ever, as increasing numbers of kids consume Sesame Street’s content on mobile – especially in developing and war-torn nations.
The brand recently partnered with the International Rescue Committee and the MacArthur Foundation to create Ahlan Simsim, a mobile-first show made specifically for displaced kids living in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The brand’s YouTube channel has proven critical in the company’s quest to find balance between short- and long-form content. The show is often broken up by a direct-to-camera ‘letter and number break’, allowing for episodes to be sliced into portions and uploaded to its website and other hosting platforms.
YouTube also offers two more advantages: viewer data (“We can see which parts kids are watching, how long are they watching for and where they stop watching”) and a place for adult fans of Sesame Street to consume content, nostalgically or otherwise.
The team recognizes that not all of its audience sits between the ages of two and six, so periodically throws in jokes for the amusement of its older viewers. These range from Sarah Jessica Parker explaining the concept of ‘big’ with Grover to the 1979 Beatles parody ‘Letter B’ (which, incidentally, resulted in a lawsuit from the Fab Four).
Lehmann is unafraid of looking 50 years into the future, largely due to the company’s proven investment in innovative storytelling techniques. “We also spent a lot of time thinking about what augmented reality looks like,” he says, referencing educational apps such as Big Bird’s Words.
“As producers, we must always remember how kids consume the show. Every season we meet with our directors and say to them, for example, ‘They’re not really watching on a giant TV.’ Some are, but a lot are not. So we ask: ‘How can we tailor our content to fit all that and keep meeting the needs of kids as they evolve?’”
It’s hard to say if Adler’s assertion – that Sesame Street is the most intelligent and important show on television – still holds today.
The medium now represents a hydra-like beast that superlatives can no longer attach themselves to: who’s to say if Sesame Street means more to culture than, for example, The Sopranos or The Simpsons?
What it has maintained, however, is an energy that is powered by the times it is produced in – one that is in constant reiteration and completely beholden to the needs of its audience. It has no issue with creating new characters to make sure society is fairly reflected on its screens and, conversely, no issue creating new storylines for 50-year-old puppets with very limited vocabularies.
It embraces its nostalgic power and wields it as a force for good, always putting the interests of kids ahead of the politics its storylines sometimes reflect.
At a stretch, the show could be characterized in Lehmann’s favorite character, Cookie Monster. “There’s something so satisfying because, at the end of the bit, no matter what, he’s going to eat a cookie,” he says. “There’s a predictability there that I just love in this character. You just know exactly who he is.”