Sesame Workshop was founded in the 1960s and charged with creating a TV show that would help prepare disadvantaged kids for school. Sesame Street was a breakthrough success in the US. But 50 years and 150 countries later, Big Bird and friends have traveled well beyond the street. And now, with new CEO Steve Youngwood at the helm, Sesame Workshop is gearing up for further expansion.
When Youngwood joined Sesame Workshop five years ago as COO and president of media and education, the kids content market was increasingly fragmented as channels and streaming services proliferated in the US and globally.
To make sure the company would remain relevant, he added four new series to its lineup—Helpsters, Esme & Roy, The Not-Too-Late Show with Elmo and Ghostwriter—to engage with kids’ different interests and needs. And he has since put two more, including the animated Mecha Builders for HBO Max, into production.
Working with president Sherrie Westin, Youngwood now plans on driving growth by tackling pressing issues such as racial and social justice. He also wants boots on the ground in new markets like Japan and Latin America, where the brand has a strong foothold, but there are still untapped opportunities to connect with the local community and grow its presence. And he’s just getting started.
Kidscreen: Where is Sesame Workshop now, and where do you plan to take it in the future?
Steve Youngwood: Sesame Workshop is a global, mission-driven not-for-profit dedicated to harnessing the power of media to help kids and families—particularly those who are most vulnerable—address the most pressing issues. With all the disruption and uncertainty around the world, this is an incredibly important moment for society, and for us.
We have always had Sesame Street, and keeping that [show] engaging is the table stakes. But going forward, we’re looking to expand both the amount of and the type of content we make so that we can address these needs on the various platforms and touchpoints kids and families use.
If you look over the past few years, we’ve expanded in both ways. We have more shows in production than at any time in our history. We also have more types of shows than ever before to meet the different types of kids and types of learning possibilities.
We’re expanding into documentaries, where we take important issues—like the experience of being a military family or opioid addiction—and demystify them and give families a path of hope. We’re also in the current event space through an ongoing relationship with CNN to address kids’ and families’ needs in a timely manner.
One of the most dramatic things for us is a significant expansion in digital. We have partnered with HOMER [an early learning educational app that focuses on literacy and math], and we’re going to build what we think is a breakthrough digital experience focused on social-emotional [education].
We’re supporting HOMER’s growth in an early learning program that goes beyond literacy or math to help kids develop skills that will make them smarter, stronger and kinder. That’s where we made our name for ourselves, and if we can figure out what social-emotional means in digital, we feel we can make a difference in that space on a global scale.
KS: What were the insights that drove you to new properties?
SY: When I came to the Workshop into 2015, our mission was as relevant as ever. But the media landscape has changed since [Sesame Street] first launched. The impact you could have with one show 10 or 20 years ago is not the same impact you can have today.
Kids have many different [channel and content] options, and we knew if we wanted to scale, we had to keep Sesame Street relevant and engaging. To do this, we needed to expand into different types of genres, as well as exploring topics like meditation and mindfulness. But we also needed to do more shows, which is why we expanded beyond the Muppets.
At our heart, we’re also a creative organization, and everything we do builds and feeds on itself. The more we can creatively flex our muscles and do different genres and shows, the more alive and vibrant the company will be. This will feed into the various shows in terms of capabilities and insights. This also allows us to work with more creators, attract more dynamic employees, and be more interesting to work with for different partners.
KS: Why is Sesame Workshop splitting its leadership into two roles, with you as CEO and Sherrie Westin as president?
SY: Under Jeff Dunn’s leadership, I played a cross-company role as COO, and led our media and education efforts. Sherrie took us to a different level by leading our mission-driven efforts. She’s the person and vision behind the MacArthur [Foundation] and the LEGO [Foundation] work we’re doing in the Syrian [and Rohingyan] refugee regions.
The company decided to put me in as CEO, but the best of Sesame is when you bring both content and philanthropy together. By having Sherrie as president and me as CEO, we can have the broadest impact and ensure the longest-term sustainability.
KS: What sort of impact did COVID-19 have on Sesame Workshop?
SY: COVID forced us to produce content in new ways, and it’s led us to innovation. When we realized that outdoor shooting was easier [than retrofitting a studio with COVID-19 protocols], and that we hadn’t done an outdoor shoot in our recent history, we decided to send Elmo to a farm. It forced us to do a new storyline, and I believe it will be one of the most creatively fun and inspiring story arcs we’ve done in many years, because we were forced to open our aperture of how we do things.
Similarly, with our in-home intervention work with Syrian refugees [whereby Sesame delivers content and educational resources to young refugees and their families], we couldn’t go into people’s homes anymore. We adopted WhatsApp as a digital delivery and two-way communication method. We’re realizing this is a more scalable way to have one-to-one contact, and what we hope to take from this is a new direct-service approach that we can take all over the world.
Getting our first special on COVID-19 on air within a month also made us realize that we can, and need to, quickly address the pressing issues in the news for kids.
KS: Sesame is often at the cutting edge of tackling topics like homelessness and addiction. What are some areas Sesame is going to expand into next?
SY: Social and racial justice is one that we’re prioritizing. We did some initial work in 2020. After George Floyd’s tragic death, we did a townhall with CNN. Later, we did more townhalls and specials.
A team is also putting together a curriculum and content plan. We plan to include children’s perspectives and build out new research to help kids and families discuss racism, build empathy and embrace diversity.
And you’re going to see this curriculum come to life across new short-form content, in Sesame Street as well as in new shows. We think for kids and future generations, it is one of the most important global issues. We’re figuring it out and preparing executions that are local because our approach has to be based on a country’s history.
We think that our history of being inclusive gives us the permission and trust to address the issues in the more pointed way that is needed today.