Sesame Street is by far the longest-running children’s television programme ever made. Since its debut in 1969, more than 4400 episodes have been produced. The show has been broadcast in over 100 countries worldwide, and won countless awards. Yet its fiftieth year in 2019 was marked, not just by celebration, but also by controversy. It was announced that the following season, its fifty first, would have its first run exclusively on a new subscription-only streaming service, HBO Max, owned by WarnerMedia.[i] Furthermore, HBO Max would now become the exclusive channel for streaming of the show’s entire back catalogue. In fact, this deal was merely the latest development in a longer-term strategy. Although it was originally funded by grants from philanthropic foundations and from federal government, Sesame Street has always struggled to remain commercially viable. As the marketplace has become more competitive, and as cuts to public television have begun to bite, it has come to rely increasingly on merchandising and overseas sales. Corporate sponsorship of the show began in 1998, and after 45 years on free-to-air PBS channels, it first signed on with HBO’s premium cable channel in 2015.
Nevertheless, the latest announcement met with widespread dismay among commentators on social media. Some of this was perhaps a little exaggerated – new episodes continue to be aired on PBS, albeit nine months later than on HBO – and some of it was rather sentimental. Yet the apparent capitulation of Sesame Street to commercial forces – and the resulting exclusion of less affluent viewers – was somehow deeply symbolic. While the programme lives in popular memory as the original home of the Muppets, the controversy seemed to remind some critics of its original social and educational objectives. Some complained about the ‘gentrification’ of the Street, and saw the move as a kind of betrayal of its original mission to educate children from low-income families.[ii] For many, and perhaps particularly for baby boomers, Sesame Street remains the motherhood and apple pie of children’s TV: it holds out the promise – perhaps the dream – of television as an agent of progressive social change.
Yet before Sesame Street finally settles into a nostalgic, rosy glow, it’s important to recall some of the controversy that surrounded its early days. In this essay, I want to go back to the origins of Sesame Street and the Children’s Television Workshop (since renamed Sesame Workshop), the non-profit organization that produced it. In particular, I want to probe the idea that is implicit in concerns about the ‘gentrification’ of the show. According to its promotional material, and the grant applications that secured its initial funding, Sesame Street was targeted at preschool children in general, but particularly at disadvantaged, inner-city children – and, while this was not always acknowledged in quite such explicit terms, at African-American children specifically. This sense of the programme’s social mission was apparent not just in the claims of its producers and researchers, but also in what appeared on screen, and in a range of outreach activities that sought to engage this specific target audience. And yet, as we’ll see, this was a difficult – and at times, quite confused and contradictory – endeavour.
Sesame Street is not just the longest-running children’s show of all time: it is also the most extensively documented and researched, and quite possibly the most debated. The fiftieth anniversary saw a flurry of celebratory articles and TV specials; but there have been numerous books published about the show over the years, as well as countless book chapters and academic research studies (most of them funded by the Children’s Television Workshop itself). At least some of this material blurs the line between evaluation and sheer public relations. Like Disney, CTW has been assiduous – and occasionally quite ferocious – in promoting the story of its own success.
The origins of Sesame Street lay in a New York dinner party conversation between two of its key founders – a setting which might itself be seen to reflect the privileged liberal social milieu from which it emerged. As Michael Davis puts it (somewhat romantically), these were individuals who came together ‘at a star-crossed moment in American life when people of means who lived in comfort chose to dedicate their energies to the less fortunate and the forgotten, the rural poor and the underprivileged of the urban ghettoes’.[iii] Joan Ganz Cooney was a former television publicist who had gone on to produce social issue documentary programmes for WNET, the New York public television channel: one of her most recent programmes had focused on a preschool reading initiative for African-American children in Harlem. The person whose interest she sparked was Lloyd Morrisett, an executive vice-president from the Carnegie Corporation, who played a key role in brokering the funding for the early seasons: Morrisett had recently noticed his young daughter’s growing fascination for television, and for commercials in particular.
It was from Cooney and Morrisett’s casual speculations about the educational potential of television that Sesame Street was born. At Morrisett’s instigation, Cooney was invited by Carnegie to produce a scoping report on pre-school television, published in 1967, and then a feasibility study for what was to become Sesame Street. She went on to become the executive director of Children’s Television Workshop, a position she held for twenty years. For his part, Morrisett had to tackle scepticism within the Carnegie Foundation itself about the value of using such an expensive and apparently ephemeral medium such as television.[iv] Gaining the necessary funding entailed delicate negotiations with the federal government’s Office of Education, and with other funders such as the Ford Foundation: it appears that the approval of Harold ‘Doc’ Howe, the Commissioner of the OE, was crucial in securing wider support. Yet public funding was only ever likely to be short-term; and in a competitive commercial environment, sustaining the future of CTW was bound to prove challenging. The budget for the start-up and the first season was in the region of $8 million, over $50 million in today’s terms, and there were many who resented CTW’s success in gaining such substantial funding. Some argued that the money would have been better spent on more direct educational provision; others were doubtful about the value of television as an educational medium; while some commercial TV producers felt that the CTW had unfairly cornered the market.
As such, it’s not surprising that CTW put a great deal of energy into promotion of various kinds. Influential support was forthcoming from sources as diverse as the New York Times TV critic Jack Gould and the child-care expert Dr. Benjamin Spock.[v] However, the publicity wasn’t confined to predictable media spin. The educational credibility of the show was a vital aspect of its brand. Gerald Lesser, a Harvard professor, was enlisted to chair CTW’s Advisory Board, to devise the programme’s ‘curriculum’ and oversee its research activities. The educational aims were developed through a series of seminars with a carefully selected group of academic experts alongside creative staff. These seminars were somewhat cynically described by John White of National Educational Television as a form of public relations, designed to deflect criticism: along with the early research, they gave the project ‘the Good Housekeeping seal of approval before it hit the air’.[vi]
Just a few years later, Lesser’s own book Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street extolled the ‘personal genius’ of Cooney and her staff, but it also proclaimed the merits of what has come to be known as the ‘CTW Model’. This was partly about the combination of education and entertainment – although, as we’ll see, both of these were defined in quite particular ways. However, it was also about the collaboration between creative producers and academics: Lesser himself was just one of the many high-profile scholars whom CTW brought on board (and paid) to provide legitimacy as well as input and advice. Research was also a vital part of the ‘model’. At an early stage, CTW established its own research department (under the direction of another academic, Edward Palmer), which conducted formative studies designed to assess the appeal and effectiveness of specific programme formats and components. It is this research that forms the basis for Lesser’s general account of what ‘works’ in educational television (for example, in terms of attracting and directing children’s attention, combining verbal and visual elements, modelling learning, and so on). It also engaged an external evaluation agency, the Educational Testing Service, to conduct a summative evaluation of the achievements of its early seasons. This kind of research was obviously vital in securing continuing funding – although, as we’ll see, the ETS research was subjected to considerable criticism, in a debate that revealed some of the confusion of CTW’s original aims.
Despite this considerable promotional effort, Sesame Street was bound to be controversial. Even before the show went on air, it was attracting a range of negative commentary. In early press reports, it was variously described as repetitive, disjointed, hypnotic, and ‘psychically damaging’. Among many other things, it was accused of bombarding children and producing ‘sensory overload’; causing frantic, hyperactive behaviour; undermining children’s reading and study habits; emphasizing mechanical rote learning; and provoking aggression, by encouraging children to identify with ‘monsters’ (that is, the Muppets). A psychiatrist called to give evidence by a Senate Subcommittee claimed that the programme would create a generation of drug addicts; while a pre-school specialist likened its form of thought control to Huxley’s Brave New World.[vii] Irrespective of their merits, such criticisms routinely attract attention in rival media, and provide a useful means of self-promotion for those with other axes to grind.
While some of the criticism was obviously overstated, however, much of it was clearly driven by wider social and educational concerns. Thus, some conservatives accused Sesame Street of undermining traditional childhood values and teaching poor quality ‘street’ language; while some radicals condemned what they saw as its sanitized image of inner-city life, its use of rapid paced, hard-sell advertising formats, and its ‘behaviourist’ approach to teaching. Critics on both sides accused it of wasting taxpayers’ money.[viii] In different ways, both groups were informed by a more general disdain for television as a medium per se, and by some rather grandiose assumptions about its effects. Cooney and her colleagues largely dismissed such arguments as a form of snobbery: ‘for all these upper-middle-class, largely middle-class people, to wring their hands about television and about fast pace… is really a very cheap shot’, she later argued.[ix]
I’ll consider some of the more relevant and thoughtful of these criticisms in more detail in due course. In some instances, CTW was able to brush them off, but some of the more serious criticisms were treated very aggressively. For example, when the head of the BBC’s children’s department circulated a paper justifying her refusal to buy the show for screening on British television, CTW accused her of ‘falsehoods and fabrications’, and forced her to issue a substantial retraction.[x] However, as we’ll see, it was evidence from independent research – and a critical re-analysis of CTW’s own funded studies – that led to the most vigorous counter-attacks, especially from Lesser and from CTW’s head of research, Edward Palmer. Here, and in their response to the BBC, it was the claim that Sesame Street was trying – and failing – in its key aim to narrow the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children that proved to be particularly contentious. This is the issue that is the main focus of my attention in this essay.
[iii] Davis: 9.
[iv] TV Academy interview, 2004.
[v] Spock, ‘Children, Television and Sesame Street’, Redbook, July 1970.
[vi] Interview with Polsky, Columbia Oral History Archive.
[vii] These criticisms came from the psychiatrist Dr. Natalie Shainess and the pre-school specialist Dr. Louise Bates Ames in 1971, and received widespread press coverage at the time.
[viii] These examples are drawn from a range of reports and internal documents, as well as some press reports, mostly from 1971 and 1972, in the UM/CTW archive, box 17: folders 40-54.
[ix] Interview with John Callaway, 1983: Paley Center video archive B11803.
[x] Monica Sims, memo to EBU members, UM/CTW archive box 29: 12. For a little more detail on the grounds for the BBC’s decision, see my essay ‘Watching with (and without) mother’ (link in list of references).