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Singing a Song That’s Loud and Strong – 'Sesame Street' and 'Kennedy Center Honors'
December 15, 2019  | By Monique Nazareth  | 2 comments
 


In the last two months, Sesame Street hit two milestones. First, it turned 50, and then it became the first television show ever to receive a Kennedy Center Honor.

Sesame Street premiered in 1969, at the height of the civil rights movement, and in the midst of the war on poverty. The show sought to educate children and break new ground in addressing a wide range of issues. It was notably multicultural and had the diversity you might see in many urban neighborhoods. Children of diverse backgrounds and from various economic environments could see themselves reflected in the people and characters on the screen.

The show was co-created by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett. Morrisett was Vice President at the Carnegie Corporation of New York. He reached out to Cooney, a documentary producer, to do a three-month study on whether TV could help children, particularly in underserved areas, to do well in kindergarten. The result was the 1966 report, The Potential Uses of Television for Preschool Education. (Sesame Workshop has just released a free PDF of that report.Morrisett and Cooney went to work on the show and founded the Children's Television Workshop in 1968.

But Sesame Street might never have gained such a firm footing and longevity had it not been for the Muppets. They came about through the artistic genius of Jim Henson. Henson already had an established reputation for his puppetry. He and his wife, Jane, founded Muppets, Inc. in 1958 and he had a twice-daily five-minute show called Sam and Friends on a Maryland NBC affiliate. Incidentally, that show included a very early version of Kermit the Frog. He and Frank Oz developed Rowlf the Dog, the first nationally recognized Muppets character who appeared on The Jimmy Dean Show in the mid-'60s.

Cooney says Henson, who died in 1990, was reluctant to work on Sesame Street when she first approached him because, as she told CBS, "he didn't want to be identified as a children's entertainer." Thankfully he changed his mind and went on to create beloved characters like Ernie and Bert, Cookie Monster, Big Bird, the Count, Grover, and Oscar the Grouch, among others.

And so on November 10, 1969, the show premiered with the character Gordon Robinson (Matt Robinson) introducing this new world to his friend Sally by saying, "…you've never seen a street like Sesame Street. Everything happens here. You're gonna love it!"

And love it people did, not only nationally but globally. Over the decades, the show has undergone changes, particularly as its viewership dropped as competition grew. That's how we got new characters, like Elmo and Abby Cadabby. Sesame Street also featured a vast array of guest stars from the film, television, and music world. But what's even more remarkable has been all the groundbreaking topics the show has tackled. It's taken on childhood hunger, divorce, death and grieving, military deployment, autism, and the impact of natural disasters. Some of the difficult subjects, like incarceration of a parent, have been addressed in online tool-kits. And globally, it's targeted important issues for individual countries, such as covering HIV/Aids in South Africa.

All of this takes money, and so four years ago Sesame Street cut a deal with HBO. The move received some criticism from some like Dr. Bill Baker, President Emeritus of Educational Broadcasting Corporation who toldTVWW back in 2016, "I think any time a program for kids feels upscale, there is a real risk for the poor kids who may not be able to relate to the subject and hence feel less inclined to watch and use the program's valuable content."

However, this was a lifeline for the show, given DVD sales had dried up, and it was running huge operating losses. Under the five-year deal, HBO has the rights to run the new half-hour-long episodes of the series, and PBS can run it nine months later. That agreement is coming to an end soon. In October, it was announced that Sesame Street has a new deal WarnerMedia's upcoming streaming service, HBO Max. Besides the 35 original half-hour episodes, it will also include annual specials and four related or spinoff series. For example, there will be docuseries to explore sensitive issues facing kids and will present a new take on late-night talk shows with The Not Too Late Show with Elmo. WarnerMedia also gets that incredible half-century library of episodes. HBO Max is set to launch in the spring, and Sesame Street's 51st season will premier there. If you don't plan on subscribing, no worries, as PBS will again get to run each season with a delay.

So Sesame Street has a lot to celebrate, and yet the very day they were heading to the Kennedy Center, news came out of the death of long-time puppeteer Caroll Spinney. He was the man behind Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. Spinney had been with the show from the beginning and had just retired about a year ago. The team added yellow feather pins to their formal wear in tribute to their late colleague. And they walked out in full attire, Muppets in place as Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett accepted the award. The whole group then belted out a song familiar to just about everyone, the Sesame Street classic Sing a Song. If you want to sing along, CBS is airing the event on Sunday, December 15, at 8 p.m. ET.

 
 
 
 
 
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2 Comments
 
 
Howard Blumenthal
Sesame Street, and Sesame Workshop, is very well-established, but it's easy to forget that the work relies upon reliable funding. On the one hand, I wish the structure and viability of public television in the United States was able to fully support its domestic work, but Sesame Workshop is a global enterprise, and basically, PBS is not. As a result, the two organizations operate on different tracks. With these moves, Sesame Workshop fully commits to a 21st-century approach to funding, platforms, and its future. PBS must do the same, but its current funding model, which is not likely to change, makes this pivot more challenging. Sesame Street is a core component of the PBS brand, but PBS has done a good job in establishing other children's brands and will continue to do so, as will Sesame Workshop. In many ways, PBS and Sesame Workshop are siblings--similar in age and initial intent--but the demands of the comtemporary marketplace will continue to complicate their relationship.
Dec 16, 2019   |  Reply
 
Zeke
I sincerely hope you're not proposing advertising to children?
Wasn't the Original Mission Statement of Children's Workshop/Sesame Street, to offer early education, particularly for those not attending Pre-K and Nursery School?
Has this changed?
Dec 16, 2019
 
 
 
Mac
Surprised it is still on You Tube,but someone has allowed clips from the Jim Henson tribute,held a month after Henson's surprise death in 1990. Add to the probable tears while watching,performers in the tribute who are gone include Jerry Nelson,Richard Hunt and,of course,Spinney. Kevin Clash is still part of the Muppets,but forbidden from Sesame Street(he was Elmo) due to "allegations of improper sexual conduct."
Dec 15, 2019   |  Reply
 
 
 
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