Sesame Street: A Method to the Madness

Sesame Street: A Method to the Madness November 27, 2007

I 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.”

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