Returning home from Europe, David Britt, CTW’s president and CEO, was walking through Kennedy Airport in New York when he overheard two Germans behind him comment on the Sesame Street bag he was carrying, ‘Look, they have it over here too.’
The fact that Germans think of Sesamstrasse as their own original production, or that parents and kids in 18 other countries feel the same way, is testament of the company’s international strategy to create local productions that reflect the indigenous educational and entertainment needs of children around the world.
CTW has been a pioneer of localization in international territories. From the launch of its first co-production, Sesamstrasse (with NDR) in Germany in 1973, its global strategy has been to create local content and curriculum developed by local experts on child development. Sesame Street, in various forms, has been seen in more than 140 countries and is co-produced in 19, most recently launching in Israel/Palestinian territories (with Israel Educational Television and Al Quads Educational Broadcasting). Co-productions with Egypt (with Karma Productions) and South Africa, which will present a challenge for the co-producers (CTW is still looking for a South African co-production partner) due to the 11 languages spoken there, will come on board within the next two years. CTW is also in discussions with India and Brazil to bring Sesame Street there, and is looking to return the show to France.
‘Educators see us as a vehicle to reflect their own culture,’ says Steven Miller, CTW’s group VP of international television and licensing. ‘Our research has told us that it’s important for children to see their own reality reflected in the shows they are watching. Our co-productions offer them that chance.’
As more governments and parental groups become concerned over the messages that their children are getting from television, many are demanding programming created for local audiences that isn’t just a dubbed import. The CTW model allows broadcasters to use localized versions of Sesame Street as vehicles that protect and promote their respective cultures.
Fifty percent of the show, including new animation, new live action, new sets and new muppet characters that reflect local culture, is left up to the co-production partner. Sesame Street library material makes up the other half. CTW consults on the process of how to make Sesame Street with its partners, holding training workshops with production personnel, writers and puppeteers to ensure quality control.
Beyond the ABCs, curriculum needs can vary greatly from country to country. In Russia, one of the goals is showing kids how to live in an open society. In China, teaching the concept of beauty is important.
CTW has used its international co-production model for other series, such as Big Bag (France), Square One (U.K.) and 3-2-1 Contact (China). In addition to its co-production partners, CTW works with corporate sponsors in some territories, like Nestlé’s in Russia and General Electric in China, to defray the costs of co-production financing.
As the international co-productions mature, CTW and its partners are devising ways to incorporate local community education services outreach programs. For example, the South Africa co-production of Sesame Street is being designed with a radio component and outreach program right from launch in order to reach the greatest audience of children possible.
‘We’re getting to see Sesame Street becoming a global brand and we get to see the impact that it can have for kids in different markets,’ says Miller. ‘We can watch kids watch it in a developed market like Germany, but also get to see kids react to it in very different places like Egypt and South Africa, which are going through great changes and their exposure to education is at a very different level.’
Sesame Street may be turning 30 in the U.S., but that’s of little concern to kids in Russia, China, Israel or elsewhere who don’t even know that the street created just for them extends around the world.