My focus in this essay has been on the inception and early years of Sesame Street: with one or two exceptions, I have not attempted to take the story beyond the very early 1970s. Broadly speaking, the issues I have considered were much more significant in the early years, and gradually faded from view. As I’ve suggested, concerns about the representation of African-American communities were gradually joined (and to some extent displaced) by an emphasis on other ethnic and minority groups. The interest in ‘disadvantaged’ children also seems to have faded by the late 1970s. It’s interesting in this latter respect to compare the early Sesame Street newsletters for parents with those from the early 1980s. The newsletters remained free, although the production values of the later ones were much higher. However, it is the content that has particularly changed. The newsletters from the early 1980s contain interviews with childcare experts, PhDs and pediatricians, as well as reports on research, that resemble those of middle-class parenting magazines: the focus has moved a long way from the inner city ‘ghetto’.[i]
To a large extent, this was inevitable. Given the changing political environment (Nixon’s presidency began in 1969) and the increasingly commercial nature of children’s television, it was unrealistic for CTW to expect ongoing government or charitable funding. Sesame Street was going to have to survive in a much more competitive marketplace; and this meant it needed to appeal to all. In seeking to cover its own costs, CTW came to rely both on ancillary merchandising, and on overseas sales. While it remains a non-profit organization, it increasingly has to operate like any other commercial player. As both Cooney and Morrisett have subsequently acknowledged, an innovation with the scale and ambition of Sesame Street could never have happened today. Programmes like Barney and Friends may present themselves as ‘educational’, but they are only made possible by the vast profits to be made from merchandising and licensing. Production costs have risen, and there is a good deal more children’s television available; but public funding (especially for aspects such as CTW’s research and outreach) would be impossible to achieve today.[ii]
In the 1980s and 1990s, CTW significantly expanded its merchandising activities, and in some instances appears to have over-reached itself, for example in areas such as theme parks and electronic games. For a programme that continues to air on public television, the opportunities here are obviously more limited; and the show’s continuing ‘educational’ brand might well be seen as incompatible with certain types of products (books are generally acceptable, but toys and clothing might be more problematic in some cases – although Elmo has served CTW pretty well). It eventually made deals, not just recently with HBO, but also with Nickelodeon (on digital channels) and Disney (on the Muppets).
Today, much of Sesame Street’s funding – and what Morrisett calls its ‘greatest mission opportunity’ – is in international markets, especially in developing countries. In such locations, there is much less competition from domestic broadcasters, although there is also little money to be made from licensing and merchandising: the funding has to come primarily from governments and from international aid.[iii] These projects might well be seen as another attempt to ‘bridge gaps’, albeit on a global level. In this context, Sesame Street represents itself, not as a commercial enterprise, but as a humanitarian intervention, and there is a strong missionary mentality in play. Equally, however, there are issues to do with representation, cultural differences and ‘deficit models’ that echo those I have discussed in relation to the US domestic context. While CTW purports to respect and support local cultural production, some critics see its international activities as merely another form of US ‘communications imperialism’. But this is another complicated story that I won’t be able to consider here.[iv]
In both the areas I’ve discussed in this essay, Sesame Street consistently adopted what might be called a ‘both/and’ strategy. In terms of representation, it purported to offer a recognizable (if not wholly realistic) image of the lives of inner-city children; yet it also sought to provide ‘positive images’ – images that would promote self-esteem among the black minority, while also encouraging tolerance and understanding among the white majority. In terms of education, it set out to provide a form of remedial instruction that would bring disadvantaged African-American children up to the level of their white, middle-class counterparts; yet it also claimed to provide education for all children, irrespective of their background.
In looking back to its early years, I have sought to dispel some of the nostalgia – and even the sanctimoniousness – that tends to infuse contemporary discussions of Sesame Street. Yet it would be inappropriate and a-historical to judge it entirely by today’s standards. It doesn’t make sense to evaluate the programme’s early representations of ‘race’ by the criteria of today’s identity politics. Nor should we assess the validity of its educational claims in terms of current thinking about pedagogy and social justice. To some extent, this retrospective view is hard to avoid; but we should at least take account of what was possible at the time, and what it might reasonably expect to have achieved.
The claim that a national television programme, available to all, could ever narrow the gap between disadvantaged children and their middle-class peers would seem to be a contradiction in terms. CTW almost certainly promised more than it could ever hope to deliver in this respect; yet it is surely ridiculous to deny that this was ever the aim. Nevertheless, its espousal of this ambitious aim should not be seen as merely hypocritical. It was partly necessary if the programme was to secure funding in the first place, and go on to survive in an increasingly difficult commercial environment. Here too, Sesame Street’s social and political aspirations need to be seen as a reflection of different strains within the majority liberal culture of the period.
Ultimately, Sesame Street was the product of a professional elite: the communities it set out to target were not significantly involved in devising and producing it. It represented a form of benevolent liberalism, with all the positive and negative aspects that would imply. Taking a broader view, it might well be condemned as a form of tokenism – as it was by critics like Linda Francke at the time. There were even some within government (such as the director of Head Start, Edward Zigler) who recognized that the programme might function merely as a ‘band-aid’, an easy substitute for the more fundamental reforms that were required.[v] For their part, Cooney and her colleagues always insisted that Sesame Street was never intended to be a substitute for proper preschool education. Nevertheless, their argument was partly made on financial grounds: they frequently compared the costs per child of Sesame Street with those of face-to-face educational provision.[vi]
For policy-makers and wealthy philanthropists, Sesame Street offered a means of throwing money at the problem of black educational underachievement, without having to address its fundamental causes. Although television might have appeared costly to some, it seemed to promise an inexpensive solution to the problem of educational inequality, at least as it had been generally defined. Funding an entertaining, popular television show was criticized by those who were suspicious of the medium per se, and it wasn’t cheap; but it was much less expensive – and much more likely to attract positive media attention – than providing free, universal preschool education.[vii] For some, it might have seemed like a bargain at the price.
Of course, the problems that Sesame Street sought to address have by no means disappeared. Black Lives Matter may be one very visible manifestation of that, but continuing African-American underachievement in US schools is certainly another.[viii] As I’ve suggested, the focus of attention for CTW has increasingly moved to the international market: as I write (in late 2019), a new version of the show targeting refugee children in Arabic-speaking countries is about to launch.[ix] I doubt that even CTW imagines that the Muppets will bring about world peace, but the missionary zeal clearly continues to take the show into very difficult circumstances. Of course, this isn’t a zero sum game: attempting to teach mutual tolerance through Sesame Street is probably better than not doing so, but there is still a danger of distracting attention from the real causes of such problems, in favour of merely addressing the symptoms. In all these respects, Sesame Street continues to have lessons for us today.
[i] There is a sample of these newsletters in the UM/CTW archives, for example box 157.
[ii] See Cooney, TV Academy interview, 1998; and Morrisett, TV Academy interview, 2004.
[iii] See Morrisett, TV Academy interview; the recording of Gerald Lesser’s seminar on ‘Sesame Street: The First Quarter Century’, in the Paley Centre archive, T28082; and the film The World According to Sesame Street, 2006, which follows CTW co-productions in Bangladesh, Kosovo and South Africa.
[iv] Critical analysis of CTW’s work overseas can be found in Hendershot (especially her 1999 article), Jensen and Lustyik (2017), and in Jensen’s forthcoming book.
[v] Zigler was head of the Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and director of Head Start: see UM/CTW box 4: 29, and Morrow, 147. Zigler was also a notable supporter of Cook’s re-evaluation of the ETS studies, which may partly explain how it came to be funded. Interestingly, Head Start was one of the first of the original funders to withdraw its support for CTW.
[vi] See, for example, Cooney’s initial report, ‘Potential Uses…’; and her later report to Carnegie, ‘The First Year of Sesame Street’: Columbia Carnegie archive, series IIIB.
[vii] Just for comparison, the initial budget for Head Start, which reached less than half a million pre-schoolers in 1967, was $127 million; the budget for Sesame Street, with an audience of around 7 million, was $8 million: Cooney’s report to Carnegie, The First Year of Sesame Street, December 1970, Columbia archive series IIIB, box 33: 1.
[viii] Much of the research in this area is currently informed by ‘Critical Race Theory’, although this perspective is not uncontroversial. For a US example, see Adrienne Dodson et al. (eds.) Critical Race Theory in Education (New York, Routledge, 2016).