Thirty years ago, a bunch of people got together and thought that they were about to take a year out of their lives to do an interesting television program before returning to the real world.
Little did they realize that they were about to revolutionize children’s television.
As Sesame Street celebrates the beginning of its 30th season on November 16, Children’s Television Workshop’s (CTW) original simple idea-to use television to help children learn-remains the core value of its mission, and now extends beyond TV into nearly every medium that reaches kids, domestically and globally, on-line or on the newsstand, through a plush doll or at a theme park.
While the majority of consumer activities surrounding CTW’s 30th anniversary centers on the 30th anniversary of its flagship program, Sesame Street, the occasion also gives CTW the opportunity to remind the public and the industry that there’s more to CTW than its crown jewel.
‘CTW is a brand that we intend to be the principle partner of families with young children growing up in a media-based world,’ says David Britt, president and CEO of CTW. ‘And we want to help their kids learn.’
CTW has traditionally kept a low corporate profile, but the company that has owned the block for three decades is facing increasing competition on the screen and on store shelves in the preschool and nostalgia markets. All of this has forced it to take a more visible stance. A multimillion-dollar advertising tune-in campaign that kicks off this month, a national sweepstakes, a revamped on-line presence, specially created 30th anniversary licensed product, and nostalgia activities targeted to the first generation of Sesame Street viewers add up to the most significant awareness campaign CTW has ever attempted. CTW is also shopping around for companies to fill the first-ever CTW-offered sponsorship spots for Sesame Street on PBS.
The gospel from which CTW is preaching throughout its 30th anniversary activity is to remind parents that CTW was first with educational, entertaining children’s programming, and that Sesame Street on TV, in print, on cable through its upcoming new digital channel Noggin, on home video or on-line, is as fresh and as relevant with today’s kids as it was when these parents originally grew up with it.
Britt believes that CTW has never been in a better strategic position to carry out its mission because it can now operate through more media outlets. Aside from PBS and its print activities, the company is getting back into the feature film business (Elmo in Grouchland, its first feature since Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird in 1985, is in pre-production). Noggin, a joint venture with Nickelodeon, is set to debut in January 1999. It has key consumer-product distribution partnerships, including Kmart (clothing), Tyco (toys), Random House (books) and Sony Wonder (home video). Its redesigned on-line brand will provide a direct connection to families around the world. CES, its community education services program, created in 1969, continues to offer outreach services in support of educational activities.
The company has also recently undertaken some internal restructuring, including merging its domestic and international television departments to encourage the cross-over of CTW’s international productions into the U.S., as well as to explore new opportunities for projects that began in the U.S. This will also include looking to new projects, potential partners and book-based properties that have originated outside the U.S. as sources of inspiration. In the U.S., the FCC ruling requiring broadcasters to air at least three hours a week of educational children’s programming is in part driving a growing interest in international productions that successfully combine education with entertainment, says Alice Cahn, the former director of children’s programming at PBS who recently entered the position of group president of television, film and video at CTW.
‘Sesame Street is this huge project that, over the last 30 years, has really encompassed so much of the company’s time and energy,’ says Cahn. While Sesame Street will remain a key project for CTW, ‘now, it’s time to take what we’ve learned over 30 years and turn that experience into new projects.’
One of these new projects is Dragon Tales, a co-production with Columbia TriStar Television. The 40-episode, half-hour series is based on paintings by artist Ron Rodecker. The 2-D animation series will launch on PBS in fall 1999. CTW is handling international sales and licensing of the show, and Columbia TriStar retains the home video and CD-ROM rights. As well as a financing guarantee from Columbia TriStar for these rights, funding for the show came from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting through a U.S. Department of Education grant that is provided under the Ready To Learn legislation, and a sponsorship from Kellogg. ‘This is the kind of creative and production, [as well as] financing partnership that we’re looking for as we branch out,’ says Cahn. She expects that the company will be announcing several new projects before the year’s end.
‘The problem isn’t competition for what we do, it’s competition for kids’ attention,’ says Britt. He hopes that Sesame Street will be viewed as just one element of a partnership between CTW and millions of families that starts the day a child is born and goes right through to the age of 10. ‘We are positioned with the right partners. We have the right talent. We know what it is we want to do. We’re well focused. If we don’t do it, it will be because we screwed it up,. . . but we will do it.’
-with files from Andrea Haman