Sesame Street: A Method to the Madness

bert.jpgI thought I could finish my thoughts on Sesame Street in one post, but it was too long. So, this will be the second of a three-part series. And no longer, I promise! Ok, on to business.

Let’s say you want to research preschoolers, but your study requires children who are NOT able to recognize Sesame Street characters. So you, “interview,” one child. And another. And another.

Nielson Media Research has shown that it will take a long time to finish your study, because as of 2004 they found that 99% of American preschoolers recognized the Sesame Street characters.

Try to wrap your mind around that level of influence. TV shorts like Jay Leno’s, “Jay Walking,” will quickly show you that even the Vice President is not recognized that widely by adults!

How can a show be so popular? To achieve such high recognition levels it must be watched (consistently, more than likely) by children of every ethnic, economic, and religious background (except the Amish, of course!). It must appeal to every child. Parents who have four children of their own flesh and blood cannot inspire agreement on lunch location. How is Sesame Street doing it?

The answer, in a word, is this: edutainment. Not surprisingly, edutainment is simply the meshing of education and entertainment. Sesame Street was the pioneer, and perhaps even perfecter of edutainment.

You see edutainment everywhere. Children’s shows (spin-offs from Sesame Street, naturally), public service announcements, and safety campaigns use various edutainment approaches to share their message. In fact, “very special episodes,” on sitcoms (like the kid in a sitcom family turning down drugs or a main character dying) are considered a derivation of edutainment.

The entertainment piece is targeted at kids. It is like sugar candy; what kid could resist? The program is full of bright colors and cheerful music, taking their cue from baby toys and song tapes, respectively. It follows a quick, commercial-like format intentionally designed to place little stress and high stimulation on children’s minds. The characters and situations are funny and active. In fact, children who do not understand the story or the situation still find them highly amusing!

One interesting example here is Don Music. For years, Sesame Street had a character named Don Music, who would “write” a song set to piano music- only instead of actually writing lyrics, he would recite a nursery rhyme. However, he could never remember the last line. After struggling to come up with the line, he would slam his head against the keys over and over in his (very amusing) frustration. Sesame Street created the segment so kids would learn to recognize and remember nursery rhymes. However, instead they had to cut Don Music out of the show. The reason? Too many parents were writing in, complaining that their children were hurting themselves by banging their heads against piano keys!

The educational piece is targeted at parents. To achieve recognition and influence, the show cannot simply entertain kids. It must convince parents that allowing their child to watch the show is worthwhile. So, though the show’s attraction for children is primarily entertainment, it uses this medium to communicate simple preschool concepts; letters, numbers, near and far, simple Spanish words, or how to brush your teeth. The characters also talk about the right way to deal with life issues like death (after Mr. Hooper died in the early 1980’s), birth, arguments with friends, fear, imaginary friends, and loneliness. This educational value (along with sly jokes only adults will understand, celebrity appearances or parodies of the Beatles) encourages parents to feel comfortable with letting their kids watch the show, because parents believe their kids are learning in the process.

Sesame Street goes still further, though, by educating in other ways. The show uses a variety of puppets -monsters, aliens, animals, and Snuffleupaguses- as well as humans of several different races to subtly teach values of acceptance, diversity, and multiculturalism. This is no mere conservative rant; it has been clearly articulated as one of Sesame Street’s top two goals (along with the preschool concepts mentioned above) since the show began in 1969.

So, now we understand the structure of Sesame Street and its success. The show caters to kids (and their attention spans) by using fast, commercial-like clips with bright colors and slapstick humor to communicate basic concepts like letters and numbers, backward and forward, etc. It also appeals to parents and encourages them to put their kids in front of the TV each morning for Sesame Street, because they believe it is educating their child both through edutainment and subtle character structures.

This sounds mostly good. I grew up watching Sesame Street, and I love the show! However, it may be healthy to question certain aspects of this model. We’ll try to deal with those in the third portion of this series. In the meantime, let me leave you with this thought:

Buzz Potamkin is one of the most respected names in animation. He has been producer or director for many of the most famous and influential cartoons in the country. He also had a significant hand in the early creation stages of MTV. He made two very significant comments regarding Children’s Television Workshop (CTW), the organization that created Sesame Street, and its connection to MTV. Here they are for your consideration.

“If CTW had not been there, the audience for MTV would never have appeared because it was the visual education that you got from CTW. We had long discussions in 1981/82 about the fact that it could only work if the audience was prepared for the syntax and CTW had paved the way for that syntax to work: the combination of live-action and animation, the short attention spanned verse.”

“CTW taught children to be observers of and believers in commercials because if commercials teach you how to count, they should also be able to teach anything like how to eat, what to drink, what to wear.”

About Ben Bartlett

Ben Bartlett lives in Louisville, Ky., with his wife and two terrific kids. His degree is in Political Theory and Constitutional Democracy from Michigan State University, and he has a bunch of education from a bunch of other places with nothing official to show for it. He has taught high school speech and debate, worked for a congressman in Washington DC, and worked in the health and energy industries. He is interested in how pop culture, history, politics, and theology interact with the inner and community lives of individuals... which is weird because he now works as a business analyst. Few things make him happier than reading, discussing, and recommending books.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Potamkin’s perspective is interesting but especially in the last paragraph he demonstrates a certain forgetfulness of what ’70s children’s television actually wrought in that generation. The commercialized bombardment of those who grew up in the ’70s created a generation who, largely, would never expect commercials to teach anything worthwhile – and especially anything like how to eat, what to drink, or what to wear. If anything, children’s programming of the time instilled a sense of skepticism in its viewers. I wrote about this over the Summer in a series of posts and comments on my blog* and others.

    I think that the increasingly short attention span is probably nurtured by Sesame Street, Baby Einstein, and the blitzkrieg-style cartoons that enjoy some popularity now, but I am (as befits my generation) highly skeptical that kids are taught to be believers in commercials by the efforts of children’s television. I think it’s their parents who teach them to pay heed and homage to the almighty advertisement.

    *note: see especially: Commodify This?

  • David Dunham

    another insightful post Ben. I’ll need sometime to think it over, but you’ve given me stuff to chew on.

  • Alan Noble

    I think Potamkin’s point is not that the children of the 70′s learned or trusted commercials, rather he is saying that to a child the difference between the “teaching” that Sesame Street would do on the TV screen one second and the advertising that a commercial would do on that very same screen a few seconds later would be imperceptible.

    Since Sesame Street uses the same camera techniques, quick cuts, colors, music–the “syntax” as he calls it–as commercials, there is a normalizing effect: edutainment on Sesame Street becomes edutainment in commercials.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    You could be right. I’m not sure then that Potamkin’s point is very relevant.

    Kid’s quickly learn that similar media expression isn’t related to similar media content. Immediate case in point: Spider-Man vs. charlie Brown Christmas.

    When I was a wee lad, I discovered the 1967 Spider-Man animated series (that was the one that the catchy Spider-Man song came from). It played every afternoon at 4:30 on the local. And I adored it. Animation was now my favourite thing.

    In my childlike ignorance, I presumed that other animated shows would also have to be good and similar to Spider-Man. I was then introduced to A Charlie Brown Christmas, which entirely shattered the illusion I had been labouring under—that similar packaging meant similar product.

    And I think that my experience is pretty typical here, whether in the realm of television or food or books or teachers or anything else. in short, I think that while Potamkin and his fellows might have believed that CTW prepped kids for MTV and a generation of quick-cut commercials, I think that he overestimates the influence that CTW had or could have in that expression.

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    I think the discussion may be on a slightly different direction than I was shooting for. I’ll try to address this in the third post. For now, the key point I think Potamkin is making is that Sesame Street prepares kids using a certain method of communication. He is saying that because Sesame Street built and popularized a certain expectation or type of learning, new types of media using that same approach had opportunity to be successful. So, if MTV were launched on an audience of people who were nauseated by the short animations and quick sequencing, it would die a short and unglorious death. However, because a generation of kids had spent so much time immersed in a commercial-type viewing format, new media aimed at older audiences using the same methods could come into being.

    As for the question of whether a kids show can have that kind of influence, well, we’ll just have to see, won’t we? My caution is this; don’t be too limiting in what you think education can and can’t accomplish or influence. I hope to show it’s a more powerful thing that we tend to realize.

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    That’s interesting, hypothesizing that if quickcuts were nauseating to a target audience, they wouldn’t be used (speaking to the MTV generation). I was just thinking about this recently—maybe from a different angle.

    We had borrowed one of my wife’s students’ manga collections (Kingdom Hearts, which had garnered their glowing recommendation) just to see what they liked so much about it. I was horrified to find that it was almost unreadable. It was so fast-paced and so little information was conveyed that it was difficult to tell exactly what was going on and who the characters were. It was the black and hurtful soul of ADHD bound and paginated through means too terrible to describe.

    Suddenly, I knew how adults the world over have felt when confronted with the product consumed regularly by the children of the age. And with reflection, I could see that it wasn’t that the product had changed, but my rate of perception.

    As I’ve aged, I’ve come to need a more grounded story with believable character development. Visual sturm und drang no longer* excites me unless in service to the story. But the stuff I loved as a kid was every bit as frenetic and disconnected as this Kingdom Hearts manga.

    So yeah, MTV launched to an audience who couldn’t follow its pace would fail. But all that means, I think, is that an MTV launched to forty-year-olds (whether in 1981 or 2011) would fail. And an MTV launched to seventeen-year-olds (whether in 1981 or 2011) could succeed. My point is that I don’t believe that CTW built the acuity into the children but merely identified and utilized an existing trait of its target audience.

    It’s why I, who didn’t really watch Sesame Street, could keep up with the loud and the quick of our high speed culture. Until, apparently, last week.

    *note: by no longer, I mean “rarely.”

  • http://www.benbartlett.blogspot.com Ben Bartlett

    Well, we’ll see. As you’ve mentioned, you watched lots of cartoons as a kid, so I’d say you were “fluent in animation structure” in a way your parents wouldn’t have been. And it isn’t as though, now that you’re older, ALL cartoons seem unintelligible to you. The key question we’ll get to is this; WHO does Sesame Street impact (or not impact), and if so, HOW does it do so? I think we can avoid both sweeping criticisms (as though Sesame Street is a negative influence to every kid who watches) and sweeping endorsements (as though it has absolutely no impact whatsoever).

  • http://nowheresville.us The Dane

    Yeah, I’ll buy that Sesame Street influences some kids in some way.


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