Most 40-year-olds would likely tell you to scram, just like Oscar the Grouch might, at the mention of their advancing age. But landmark series Sesame Street proudly cops to that number. Debuting on November 10, 1969 on US public television, the show that endeavored to teach preschoolers their ABCs and 123s through an inventive mix of live action, puppetry and animation wasn’t expected to last. But just a year after bowing, one of its core Muppet characters, Big Bird, made the cover of Time magazine and the show scored the first three of its 122 Emmy Awards. Clearly Children’s Television Workshop (renamed Sesame Workshop in 2000) founder Joan Ganz Cooney was onto something when she argued it was possible to teach kids through TV.
Sesame Street was like no other kids show that had come before it. While it delivered a set curriculum, anchored by solid research findings on what US preschoolers needed to learn, Sesame Street also employed the principles of modern-day advertising to get kids watching. As such, the magazine-style format – propelled by pop-culture parodies starring Jim Henson’s zany Muppets – hosted within a multicultural urban streetscape where furry monsters and average humans live side-by-side, has kept kids and their caregivers engaged for a few generations now. The Workshop also successfully exported the formula and currently has 27 international co-productions on the go, helping to foster a global consumer products business that generates US$1.5 billion at retail annually.
That said, the kids TV landscape and children’s media consumption patterns have changed considerably in the intervening four decades. The two to five set now has a lot of choice, with giants like Nick and Disney dominating the airwaves in the US and local 24/7 preschool nets popping up in major markets the world over. Of course, execs and creatives at the Workshop are well aware of the shift, and rather than using the series’ 40th anniversary as an opportunity to look back, they’re plowing ahead with a format makeover to position the show and its related lines of business to meet the needs of the next few generations of viewers.
New media habits, new direction
Sesame’s writers and producers continue to work hand-in-hand with the Workshop’s extensive research department, kicking off the construction of each new season with a seminar that puts early childhood educators in the room to help formulate the best way to teach the year’s chosen curriculum. Heading into work on the 40th, the decision was made to put the magazine format to bed, says executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente, who joined the Workshop 21 years ago in an entry-level post that had her ‘schlepping tapes in the edit room.’
‘Curriculum hasn’t changed all that much, but the method we use to teach it has,’ says Parente. ‘We’re responding to how kids are watching media now.’ She admits that in a climate where there are wholesale preschool networks jam-packed with shows of every stripe, Sesame‘s one-hour ep length is a long time for kids to watch a single show.
So starting November 10, the show is being split into four ‘blocks’ and will sport a new opening and title sequence filled with vibrant colors, graphics and a ‘chalk texture that reads urban’ – even the iconic theme song is getting a tweak.
Each block has an anchor. First up is a Street Story starring the show’s human and Muppet denizens, followed by nine-minute eps of CG-animated Abby’s Fairy Flying School, then a rotating Bert and Ernie-centric segment, capped off by Elmo’s World.
‘Commercial breaks’ separating the blocks will come in the form of animated interstitials – a long-time staple of the show. And to compete with the vibrant physical humor possessed by fully animated series, Parente says she’s looking to up the ante on the style of animation used in the shorts and will continue the show’s history of experimentation. For example, Pixar produced a series of Luxor Jr. (the little animated desk lamp) spots for Sesame that helped the animation company refine techniques for use in feature films like Toy Story.
The use of strong layered humor, often showcased to maximum effect in the show’s pop-culture parodies featuring celebrity guests, will also continue to underpin the production. Along with getting celebs such as Ricky Gervais, Cameron Diaz and Adam Sandler to appear this season, built around the enviro theme of ‘My World is Green & Growing,’ there will be quite a bit of gentle satire. One skit, for example, inspired by US net AMC’s very adult Mad Men, finds the funny by depicting a bunch of Muppet ad execs as they try to pitch concepts that convey emotions such as anger and joy. At one point, one of the Muppets refers to his co-worker as a sycophant – not exactly a word in every three-year-old’s vocabulary. But it’s also the kind of joke that keeps co-viewers entertained and helps Sesame fight for the upper end of its demo, the four- and five-year-olds who stand to benefit most from the curriculum.
Consumer products moves
On the consumer products front, Sesame has grown from signing its first licenses with publishers Random House and Western Publishing in 1970 to having a global licensee roster that now numbers over 1,000. And it’s on this side of the business that the Muppets new and old, and their cross-generational appeal, really shine.
‘I think what remains compelling about our characters is that they’re relatable and three-dimensional,’ says VP & GM of global licensing Maura Regan. ‘They have personalities and people tend to see bits of themselves in these characters.’ So while Elmo is the ‘rock star’ for two year olds, thirtysomethings tend to favor original Muppets like Grover, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie.
The Workshop’s licensing revenue is crucial to supporting the not-for-profit org’s programming and community outreach initiatives. And as such, the consumer products team is using the occasion to bolster profile at retail with a series of anniversary-themed items. Also, most licensed book titles will sport a 40th logo, including a re-issue of C is for Cooking from Wiley, whose first edition in 2007 sold more than 200,000 copies.
Beyond the celebratory year, Regan says everyday products will start reflecting the look and feel of the new opening credits. And the two-year green theme will spawn complementary goods that should help keep the licensing program fresh – an alignment that has been more difficult in the past due to the series’ tight production cycle.
Interestingly, another area that’s really benefiting from Sesame’s four-decade history is home entertainment. At a time when DVD sales are on the downslide, SVP of worldwide media distribution Scott Chambers says Sesame’s have been holding steady. At press time the Workshop was about a month into a new domestic distribution agreement with Warner Bros., so details were light on upcoming plans. But Chambers says the vast library, primarily composed of short, digital-media-friendly segments, allows his team to create numerous formats without cannibalizing existing product. ‘We’re offering a season of 12 full-length episodes on iTunes and finding that our DVD business hasn’t declined,’ he notes.