It was 30 years ago today: A stroll down Sesame Street

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The Independent Culture
On 10 November 1969, Sesame Street was premiered by the Public Broadcasting Service on 170 local stations across the US. Sesame Street was groundbreaking. The Children's Television Workshop, funded by a grant of $10m, had spent 18 months developing its innovative format with educationalists and behavioural specialists. The show's executive director, Jean Ganz Cooney, had chaired a 1967 study into children's television habits which found that Saturday morning cartoons had an average of 20 violent episodes an hour - and pre-school kids were watching about 30 hours of TV each week.

Cooney knew that Sesame Street had to "jump and move fast and feel like 1969, because kids are very turned on visually". "They like commercials and avant-garde video and audio techniques," she told the New York Times. The progressive material, which taught basic number, letter and social skills, underwent exhaustive testing on hundreds of 3-5-year-olds in New York.

The result was 130 hour-long, fast-moving episodes, presented by five actor/ hosts and Jim Henson's Muppets (who had previously been seen on The Ed Sullivan Show). The format included role-play, games, music, short films, cartoons and catchy jingles; the first episode was brought to American kids by the letters "W" and "E" and the numbers 2 and 3. It also encouraged guest stars, "to inveigle mothers into turning on the programme" (New York Times); the first series featured Carol Burnett, Burt Lancaster, James Earl Jones and Harry Belafonte.

This mammoth effort paid off. "The producers have added a fourth "r" to the [educational] process - for `revolutionary' " said the Washington Post. The New York Times called it "an exciting and potentially revolutionary new instructional technique within the context of television": "Above all, there is nothing to remind children of a classroom atmosphere. The setting is a typical New York street, except that it is bright and cheerful. The residents - both adults and children - are friendly and inquisitive".

Big Bird made the cover of Time in 1970, and the show has been a PBS success story, winning more Emmys (67) than any other show in TV history. It is now seen in more than 140 countries, with 19 national co-productions that use indigenous languages; and Kermit, Elmo, the Cookie Monster and the rest of the Muppets (who got their own show in 1976) have been a marketing dream.

Most importantly, it has remained a hit with children, and guests are still queuing up to provide some parental interest. Recent visitors have included Maya Angelou, Liam Neeson and REM, who, accompanied by a puppet modelled on the B-52s' Kate Pierson, performed "Furry Happy Monsters".