The Way to Sesame Street

The politics of children's television

It’s hard to fathom just how unusual Sesame Street must have seemed when it debuted 40 years ago this month. The children’s TV show didn’t just mix entertainment with education: It was a full-blown collaboration between commercial showmen and social engineers. On one hand you had a team of educators, experts in child development, and officials at the Carnegie and Ford foundations trying to create a televised preschool. On the other hand you had veterans of projects ranging from Captain Kangaroo to The Jimmy Dean Show, including a gang of puppeteers best known for making strange and funny ads. The program itself reflected both an antipathy to commercialism and a fascination with commercials, which served not just as a source for its parodies but as a model for its programming.

The show emerged from the same Great Society milieu that had produced the Head Start preschool program. That guaranteed it would be a magnet for controversy. In his 2006 book Sesame Street and the Reform of Children’s Television, the historian Robert Morrow notes that preschool in the ’60s was frequently framed as a project for the impoverished, who were presumed to suffer from “cultural deprivation.” Not surprisingly, many poor people found this attitude haughty and high-handed. The middle class, meanwhile, often saw the home as “a haven to be protected from intrusions by educators as well as by television.”

Sesame Street was a liberal project, not a radical one (though Will Lee, a.k.a. Mr. Hooper, had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era). When Joan Ganz Cooney wrote the first feasibility study for the show, she consciously set herself against the traditional nursery-school notion that a child should “self-select” his activities, “incidentally learning all that is intellectually appropriate to his age and stage.” This, Cooney wrote, amounted to “ignoring the intellect of preschool children.” For radical critics of American schooling, by contrast, free exploration was the best nourishment an intellect could receive. The education critic John Holt, later a leader of the homeschooling movement, argued in The Atlantic Monthly in 1971 that “Sesame Street still seems built on the idea that its job is to get children ready for school. Suppose it summoned up its courage, took a deep breath, and said, ‘We are the school.’ Suppose it asked itself, not how to help children get better at the task of pleasing first-grade teachers, but how to help them get better at the vastly more interesting and important task—which they are already good at—of learning from the world and people around them.”

Inevitably, there were culture war controversies. Feminists complained that one human character, Susan, was too much of a traditional homemaker; conservatives grumbled that another woman, Maria, was too feminist. Morrow quotes a leftist viewer’s complaint that the “cat who lives in the garbage can should be out demonstrating and turning over every institution, even Sesame Street, to get out of it.” More broadly, there were the anxieties that always attach themselves to a centralized medium beaming unvetted images and ideas into the home. Marie Winn, author of the TV-bashing book The Plug-In Drug, spoke for many Americans when she warned that the program was “promoting television viewing even among parents who might feel an instinctive resistance to plugging such young children in.” Monica Sims, an official at the BBC, felt the show’s attempts to mold children’s behavior were a form of “indoctrination” with “authoritarian aims.”

Yet Sesame Street was enormously popular, and, pace Sims, it had an anti-authoritarian side. When the program’s entertainers were at odds with its social engineers, the entertainers frequently won. If Sesame Street’s board of academic advisers had its way, the show’s people and puppets wouldn’t have interacted at all. (It was inappropriate, they felt, to mix fantasy and reality.) For its first two decades on the air, writers and performers were usually free to follow their creative instincts; and fortunately, the show had some very creative writers and performers. Besides Jim Henson and his fellow Muppeteers, who had honed their talents in ads, industrial films, and commercial TV shows, there were the songwriters Joe Raposo and Jeff Moss, each a remarkable pop craftsman, plus an array of inventive filmmakers (including Henson, who had been making experimental shorts at the same time he was producing ads).

As a result, Sesame Street became a rarity: a government program popular enough to sustain itself. The show quickly earned enough money via merchandising to wean itself from the federal teat. Public broadcasters today react to any threat to their funding by raising the possibility that Sesame Street would be forced to fend for itself. But if there’s anything on PBS that can cover its costs independently, it’s Sesame Street.

In a curious way, the show may have ended up doing more to empower the home than to batter down its doors. By moving a chunk of a child’s early education to the living room, the show threatened to accomplish unintentionally what John Holt hoped it would do on purpose: to undermine the power of the schools and shift learning into the home.

Today the barriers to starting a children’s video franchise are far lower than they were in the ’60s. You don’t need to beg a network for a spot on a tightly limited schedule. You can get your start on a niche cable channel, or even just on home video. Barney the Purple Dinosaur (not the most inspiring example, I know) was a series of independently produced VHS tapes before it came to TV. More recently, parents have been plunking down dollars for the allegedly educational DVDs for infants released under the brand name Baby Einstein. Given their content—long takes, minimalist mise en scène, an absurdism so deadpan it seems narcoleptic—a more accurate label might be Baby Warhol.

You needn’t like Barney or Baby Einstein to approve of the change they represent: a world where DVDs, the Internet, and digital video recorders have given parents an impressive amount of control, should they choose to exercise it, over the moving pictures young children consume. The available options span the ideological and pedagogical spectrums, but they all owe something to the show that did more than anything else to impart the idea that kids could learn by watching TV. In 1969 the acting director of Head Start reassured schools that Sesame Street would not be “a substitute for the classroom experience.” Forty years later, it has helped unleash an army of substitutes onto the world.

Jesse Walker (jwalker@reason.com) is managing editor of reason.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Just to be clear: The "this month" in the first paragraph refers to November (the cover date of the issue), not to October.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Sandi is a vulgar one. I hope her sort does not visit this thread.

  • Sandi||

    I took a shit on Sesame Street once. Brout to you today by the number 2 and the letters B and M.

  • Sandi||

    brought.

  • ||

    You make me wish these comments were monitored. By the government. Pwned

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Sesame Street is brought to you by the characters Hammer and Sickle.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    I predict that PL will begin defending Commies.

  • Dick||

    And those two gay lovers, Bert & Ernie.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    And Big Bird.

  • Children's Book Titles||

    "Bert & Ernie Are... Are You?"

    "Grover Mails A Bomb"

  • ||

    You're an idiot.

  • ||

    Hey, before everyone hates on the Street, you might want to watch this clip. Trust me, Big Bird's views will surprise you (though he is, I'm afraid, a Birther).

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Is it as good as Pooh Goes Apeshit?

  • ||

    More like Apocalypse Pooh.

  • ||

    The first words out of Big Bird's mouth in the clip are, "Well, look who's here to push her husband's socialist healthcare agenda!"

    Great stuff.

  • Basket Bunch||

    "Yeah, your husband's a stinkin' liar!"

    "We're gonna run him outta office!"

    "Yay!"

  • anarch||

    a Hatcher

  • kinnath||

    In '69, I was 12. A little outside the target audience for Seseme Street. But that didn't stop me from enjoying it then or when I had my own kids.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Anonymous will ander by and express disbelief that nutty Leftoids actually exist in reality. They do. I have seen them in the wild. The live among us. They look like us. They even have opposable thumbs, but they do no meaningful work with them.

  • Anonymous||

    I have seen them in the wild. The live among us. They look like us.

    You're just freaking me out on purpose now. Go back to writing teasers for made-for-TV movies and leave me alone in my puddle of fear.

  • ||

    Tell us about Libertopia, Anonymous.

  • ||

    Watch this. ProL will be along any second now to urge Anonymous to tell us about Libertopia.

    We all love his stories, so it's OK!

  • ||

    Curse these stupid gelatinous orbs! They can't see through time *or* x-rays for that matter!

  • ||

    That is why you fail.

  • ||

    John T. It's too late to taunt Anonymous about your writing. Your hack will fail.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Anonymous will accuse me, an author of fine novels, of writing made-for-TV tripe.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Missed by that much.

  • ||

    Oh, if you had only heeded my warning.

  • John Tagliaferro||

    I bow to you, superior hax0r.

  • ||

    I too know the pain of failed hacks.

    The only acceptable solution is to drown our sorrows in wine and beer.

  • Suki||

    I was doing that as you were typing. Had a nice ribeye to top it off.

  • Suki||

    My haxing only worked slightly better than yours and John's, in a later thread-thread.

  • ||

    We are contemporaries, then. I also didn't mind watching it, mostly to see if their much-hyped "new ideas" about kids TV were worth anything. Back then, I preferred the spin-off aimed at older kids -- The Electric Company -- but I am not embarrassed to admit that I watched it often enough to have memorized the "E" poem: "E ... e ... see me ... eating a peach ... sitting on my eagle ... chasing a beagle ..." And so forth. Ahh, good times.

  • ||

    I mentioned the "E..E" Sesame Street "commercial" to my wife, and she fetched the damned thing via YouTube. Unfortunately, now I have the music for the vingette stuck in my head. I recognize it from somewhere else but cannot place it. Does anyone know the source (title and composer?) of the background music to that clip?

  • ||

    Did you ever find out the composer for the E..E Sesame Street song?? I am DYING to find it!

  • Anonymous||

    Morrow quotes a leftist viewer’s complaint that the “cat who lives in the garbage can should be out demonstrating and turning over every institution, even Sesame Street, to get out of it.”

    I still don't really believe people like that exist.

    By moving a chunk of a child’s early education to the living room, the show threatened to accomplish unintentionally what John Holt hoped it would do on purpose: to undermine the power of the schools and shift learning into the home.

    Well, okay, but the show itself was a government project, not yet in the black from merchandising, I presume (when did they net positive?). So, I feel obligated to point out that Kermit would have been paying his way just fine decades earlier in cigarette commercials while still teaching critical reasoning skills in Libertopia.

  • ||

    I recall hearing a comedian say that of course Oscar was grumpy. HE LIVES IN A FUCKING TRASH CAN!

  • Larry||

    Sesame Street is evidence that even a pile of bullshit can sprout a sunflower.

  • B.P.||

    My toddler really enjoyed the special on the Manson Family that aired on the History Channel a few weeks back.

  • ||

    Hey, Frog! I know another word that starts with 'K' - Karate.

    Hiaaaaaai!!!!

    *Smashes Styrofoam letter 'K' and eats it*

  • John Tagliaferro||

    Anonymous will make a comment in the throes of his nervous breakdown.

  • Anonymous||

    I was going to do a send up of "Big Rock Candy Mountain", but I got bored. Also "the hand-outs grow on bushes" could be twisted in so many ways.

    Also, I can't beat the meter of "Where they hung the Turk who invented work", unless you can think of something clever to say about Hayek and canoes.

  • ||

    Goddamn. You don't see too many Beat Farmer references these days. I tip my hat to you.

  • Urkobold™||

    HAYEK HAS BIG CANOES!

  • ||

    Bring back the Twiddle Bugs! The muppets, not the stupid computer generated shit.

  • Big Bird||

    How is this diferent from Pat Robertson worrying about Spong Bob Square Pants' sexuality? Jesse Walker should get a real job.

  • Oscar||

    You obviously didn't read Jesse Walker's wobbly, on-the-fence, I'm-not-really-a-loony-rightwinger piece.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Edward's multiple personality disorder is getting out of hand.

  • Ahmed||

    Who is Edward?

  • Jesse Walker||

    He's a man of many handles, now including "Big Bird" and "Oscar."

  • Joette||

    ...and they all played game at the ladybug picnic!

  • Doug||

    What's the deal with the guy that kept falling down the stairs with a stack of baked goods? The guy fucked it up every damned time. You'd think that after two or three times he'd have backed off and tried something simpler--like a single cupcake in a picnic basket--then work his way up.

  • ||

    Hey!!!! It wasn't my fault the maitre'd kept greasing the stairs, the sick misogynist bastard!

    Yeah, 12, I got 12 "Fuck You"s for him. Plus, 1 , yeah 1 incredible ass kicking for him!

    And that makes? 13, the number of knives I'm gonna bury in his sorry ass!

  • BakedPenguin||

    Edward's multiple personality disorder is getting out of hand.

    I heard Sally Field is going to play him in the movie...

  • ||

    Earlier this week I Netflixed and watched the first disc of Sesame Street: Old School. It had some special features and the first episode ever aired (Oscar was orange and Big Bird was apparently suffering from a brutal case of microencephaly). It started off a little slow, (particularly a desperately boring film about cows), but it gained steam throughout the episode and by the end it was fully up to speed.

    I made my seven-year-old watch it, even though he stopped watching SS years ago, and he did something I've never before seen him do while watching Sesame Street. He laughed.

    Turns out that the coolness of Sesame Street isn't just nostalgia talking; the old stuff is really good, and the new version of the show objectively sucks.

  • ||

    Born in '55, I was too old for Sesame Street. I watched Captain Kangaroo which was not near as good. I did watch it while under the influence of inhaled botanical products once or twice and learned that this Smokey Robinson bit is worth watching.

  • ||

    Hey hey hey, why you gots ta hate on da Captain?

    I think the show was actually very good, but of course it didn't have to live up to the CTW pretensions of educating the masses electronically while transforming kiddie tv.

    I miss local kids' TV shows. In Salinas-San Luis Obispo, we had Webster Webfoot (ventriloquist host with dummy duck), and when I moved down the road to Santa Maria, there was Dapper Dan. The stations in question were small-town local outlets, but even they tried to do something for kids. Maybe it was just to satisfy FCC requirements, but I enjoyed the shows, nevertheless.

  • ||

    Hey, I liked Captain Kangaroo!

  • @||

    Mr. Moose's ping-pong ball gag never got old.
    And don't even get me started on Bunny Rabbit.

  • Paul||

    I grew up on Sesame Street, but my daughter was never that interested in it, and today, I find it rather... inchoate.

    Nope, my daughter and I have fallen in love with a number of Cartoon Network offerings like Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of the finest 'childrens' shows of all time, in my humble opinion.

    Plus she and I really go for the stuff which hides considerably adult humour, couched in a kids show: Kim Possible and what not.

  • Paul||

    Oh, Jimmy Neutron... excellent show. Excellent.

  • PR||

    sesame street in da hood: NSFW

    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/.....n_da_hood/

  • D-FENS||

    "I beat my dick like it owes me money..."

    I'll have to interject THAT into conversation sometime...

  • ||

  • ||

    That little gem was my first ever stolen download from Napster

  • ||

    It's been more than 30 years since I smoked pot, but I watched that Smokey Robinson video, and now I have a bad case of the munchies.

  • ||

    i love you guys

  • The Count Pimpin'||

    Beetch better have my money, or I give her ONE! TWO!! THREE!!! Three slaps! Mwahahaa!

  • The Ghost of Mr. Green Jeans||

    That Smokey Robinson bit was cool, but nothing beat doing peyote with The Banana Man.

  • ||

    I was too old for Sesame Street and don't recall watching Capt Kangaroo, or it could be that I've blocked the memories cause watching that clip freaks me out now... It might be socialist engineering but... it was definately a step up from some of the disturbing stuff that used to be aimed at children... Maybe that's the problem too much nice drivel not enough Bugs Bunny style smackdowns...

  • HeadTater||

    Monica Sims, an official at the BBC, felt the show’s attempts to mold children’s behavior were a form of “indoctrination” with “authoritarian aims.”

    Wait. Huh? Someone at the BBC complaining about authoritarianism?

  • EcoDude||

    Is Oscar really a cat? I had no idea...I thought he was a Grouch, a separate species with its own culture, norms, and presumably religious beliefs.

    Anyone?

  • Rich||

    Well, according to Wikipedia: "Although 'The Grouch' aptly describes his misanthropic interaction with the other characters and even to himself at times, it is also the name of his species."

    But now you've got me wondering: I heard Barney is not a dinosaur, but a salamander.

    Anyone?

  • Robert||

    "Cat" as in jive talk.

  • ||

    Good article.

  • alan||

    Last week, a couple who rent a property from me asked me to sit in to help the wife with their kid for a few mornings. The wife had back surgery last weekend and she needed to stay off her feet. So, I sat with the kid and watched the PBS For Kids! line up. Not much to complain about, except . . .
    Sid the Science Kid is pure fucking evil.

    Sid gets the idea for his birthday he is going to eat nothing but cake.

    As it happens, on that day, his teacher presents a lesson plan that has quasi scientific pretensions of methodology, but is really nothing more than indoctrination telling the kid to eat a 'little bit' from each of the food groups. Doesn't even really explain why, it just tells you to shut yer pie hole and do it!

    But the clincher in this abominable human animal husbandry was when he gets back home, he talks to his parents about his lesson, how he has changed his mind about eating only cake, and then they present him with his birthday cake where the icing has been replaced by blue berries shaped into the outline of a dinosaur.

    For his Goddamned birthday!
    No icing, blue berries.

    And the little fucker could not be any happier.

  • Atanarjuat||

    It's also the most annoying show I've seen yet, my 3 year old and I have seen them all.

  • ||

    Yes, Sid the Science kid is sickening and poorly made. The teacher and the mother seem nearly identical in voice and actions.

    Word Girl, OTOH, is quite unusual and funny. The villains are truly unique.

  • Sid's Propoganda||

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNHeV-9dPCs

    Sid the Science Kid and his classmates sing a song about the importance of getting a flu vaccine.

    HHS has teamed up with the Henson Company and its partners to create the special episode titled "Getting a Shot: You can do it!"

  • Barney||

    birthday cake where the icing has been replaced by blue berries shaped into the outline of a dinosaur salamander

  • nfl jerseys||

    wsrs

  • nike shox||

    is good

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