Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)

1969

FIrst broadcast of Sesame Street

On November 10th 1969, the first broadcast of the children’s educational show Sesame Street began delighting children all across America.  Jim Henson’s adorable and zany muppet characters began teaching preschoolers about letters, numbers and social values.  The flashy imagery and quick pacing appealed instantly to the young viewers.  “The show employed principles of learning and developmental psychology in its presentation of academic and social skills.  Psychologist Edward L. Palmer led the Sesame Street research and evaluation team.”   “The idea behind the show, developed by Joan Cooney for the Children's Television Workshop, was to present a limited pre-school curriculum via television.” Despite the fact that the urban street setting of Sesame Street was designed to attract an inner city audience, it soon proved popular among children of all backgrounds.  The show’s executive producer, Michael Loman says that, “the most important thing that we do is, we show children a wide variety of people living together in a neighbourhood, all races, all cultures, all monsters, a little girl in a wheelchair.”  The multi-ethnic and racially diverse cast created a positive, inclusive subtext for the show.  One cast member, Dr. Loretta Long,  referred to this as Sesame Street’s “hidden curriculum.”  Dr. Long played the character of Susan for many years on the show.  She explains how the show often used family events, food, dress and music to teach children about different cultures.  “And if you notice, most of the voice-overs are children or puppets,” Dr. Long adds.  “We all know kids don’t listen to adults very long, they tune us out.  They’ll listen to other children.”

Originally the show aired on PBS in the United States.  The Children’s Television Workshop, a non-profit production company, produced the show in New York City.  The global acclaim and support for the show transcended borders.  The CTW began educating over 120 million young viewers in over 130 countries around the world.  There have been 17 local co-productions in countries such as Russia, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, China, Poland, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Norway and Canada. Nobody could have ever predicted the sweeping international success of Sesame Street.  Some say that the Children’s Television Workshop is the “single largest educator of young children in the world.”

Jim Henson’s muppet characters were a key element in the success of Sesame Street. PBS producer, Joan Cooney, first invited Henson to “create a family of Muppet characters to populate Sesame Street.”  From this invitation were born the legends of Big Bird, Oscar, Ernie & Bert, Cookie Monster and many more.  Henson brought distinctive personalities to each one of his unique characters.  The charm and magic of these muppet creatures were a delight.  Their creator, James Maury Henson, was born in September of 1936 in Greenville Mississippi.  He was the second son of Paul and Elizabeth Henson.  One of Henson’s childhood friends, Kermit, became the inspiration for the name of one of Henson’s most celebrated muppet characters.  Henson’s first televised puppet performance occurred while Henson was still in high school. He later was offered to do a late night show called “Sam and Friends” while completing his freshman year at the University of Maryland.  His performance partner, Jane Nebel, later became Henson’s wife.

In recent years, Sesame Street has been forced to face funding issues like many other public television programs.  Ralph Nader criticized the show in October 1998 for ending a 30 year streak of commercial-free broadcasts.  Sesame Street is now sponsored by Discovery Zone, the indoor playground manufacturer.  Nader argues that impressionable children will be exploited by the “shameless” advertising.  However, many people feel that the wholesome values and learning opportunities provided by the show outweigh this potential cause for concern. 

Sesame Street is a long- standing tradition in children’s television programming.  For many, it is a classic childhood memory.  Sesame Street has a commitment to quality programming that parents can trust. Here’s to another 30 years of Big Bird!  

References

Brooke, Jill.  “Sesame Street takes a bow to 30 animated years.”  Friday, November 13, 1998. http://www.cnn.com/SHOWBIZ/TV/9811/13/sesame.street/

Prince, Julie.  “The Muppet Show.” http//www.mbcnet.org/ETV/M/htmlM/muppetshow/muppetshow.htm   - 16k

“Jim Henson” February 17, 1999. http://www.olemiss.edu/depts/english/ms-writers/dir/henson_jim/ - 37k

“APA Historical Database: Selected Entries.” http://www.cwu.edu/~warren/calendar/cal1110.html - 5k

Weingartner, Ken . “Sesame Street' character-turned-author wows kids, parents Loretta Long draws lots of 'gooey' looks in Washington Township” The Packet Group.  Friday, April 14, 2000. http://www.pacpubserver.com/new/news/education/4-15-00/sesame.html  - 11k

Sources:  

Prepared by Leah McMullin (OISE/University of Toronto)

November 2001

Citation: McMullin, Leah (2001). 1969: First broadcast of Sesame Street. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  http://fcis.oise.utoronto.ca/~daniel_schugurensky/assignment1/1969sesamestreet.html  (date accessed).

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