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.