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Sesame takes TV to the streets in India

For as much ink that's been devoted to the potential of the Indian market for kids entertainment properties, not enough has been made of the very real physical difficulties involved in working in the region. For example, how do you build exposure for a kids show in a market where millions of children have no regular access to TV? Sesame Workshop faced that challenge head-on last year, and learned that ingenuity and a willingness to adapt to local terrain are crucial to making inroads in the region.
April 1, 2007

For as much ink that’s been devoted to the potential of the Indian market for kids entertainment properties, not enough has been made of the very real physical difficulties involved in working in the region. For example, how do you build exposure for a kids show in a market where millions of children have no regular access to TV? Sesame Workshop faced that challenge head-on last year, and learned that ingenuity and a willingness to adapt to local terrain are crucial to making inroads in the region.

When Galli Galli Sim Sim (the Indian version of Sesame Street) began airing on Cartoon Network, POGO and Doordarshan last year, Sesame Workshop India was tasked with reaching kids who had no TVs in their homes. The team developed a mobile-viewing program whereby a branded van containing a large, portable TV screen would travel to some of the bigger slums and resettlement colonies in New Delhi and broadcast the show for neighborhood kids. A five-day pilot project that took place last September seemed to work, with more than 4,200 kids and their caregivers gathering when the van rolled into their communities.

In keeping with Sesame Street’s original vision, Galli Galli meshes learning and entertainment, but it also pays close attention to the specific cultural and educational needs of Indian children. For example, dubbed segments based around classic Sesame characters alternate with original skits starring native Muppets, such as schoolgirl Chamki and Boombah the lion. Across the board, the kids were quite taken with the show.

But there were three significant problems with the grassroots program. First off, even though 300 to 400 people at a time could watch Galli Galli eps via the mobile units, the large-screen format meant screenings had to take place after dusk, limiting the number of children who could attend. Then the price of fuel, electricity and production costs weighed on the sustainability of the venture. And finally, the van was simply too big to navigate many of the narrow streets that wind through the country’s urban areas.

So Sesame India went back to the drawing board. This time, the team took a careful look at traditional transportation used in New Delhi and turned to the push cart, which is often tapped to move vegetables and consumer goods around the city.

So these days, a small fleet of modified carts decked out in Sesame Street branding zip up and down India’s crowded lanes. Each one houses a battery-powered portable TV set and DVD player, and a single operator is able to move the cart, play the show and give kids and parents activity worksheets that reinforce the program’s educational components.

As of this month, eight carts in total – five in Mumbai and three in New Delhi – are dedicated to bringing the Galli Galli experience into unexposed communities, and the initiative is expected to reach out to another 10,500 kids and caregivers by the end of the year.

Sesame Workshop India executive director Sashwati Banerjee explains the goals of the mobile outreach program are twofold: to raise awareness of Galli Galli as a great learning experience for kids, and to inform the community about the importance of early childhood education, which is lacking in many areas of India.

Not content to rest on its laurels, the Workshop is already hard at work on another cost-effective community project that takes its lead from the local way of life. Sesame India has created a Galli Galli version of the bioscope – a device best described as similar to a Viewmaster that enables the user to see a series of still images. Banerjee plans to distribute 5,000 of the gadgets to 500 childcare centers across the country this year. The bioscope helps reinforce visual elements of the TV curriculum, and it also has enough nostalgic value for adults (many of whom grew up playing with them) that it should effectively draw them into the learning experience.

In addition to the bioscope program, Banerjee and her staff are keen to foster more partnerships with the balwadis, Indian childcare centers in slums and rural areas. Educational Sesame kits with activity materials including posters, charts, flash cards and worksheets are regularly delivered to participating balwadis. And as part of the effort, caregivers at the centers undergo training in teaching cognitive, social and emotional development and school readiness.

Banerjee says the Workshop will conduct summative evaluations to measure the impact of all its educational outreach efforts in the country. Parental interviews, observations, tests and focus groups are being conducted over the next year to find out how kids participating in the program are faring, compared to those who aren’t.

Based on the outcome of the initial pilot phase, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation has given Sesame Workshop a grant to conduct similar educational interventions in slum areas of India’s six largest cities, an initiative estimated to reach more than 1.5 million kids and caregivers over the next five years. According to Barun Mohanty, the foundation’s director in India, several million Indian children drop out of school before they reach the fifth grade.

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