Media: Back to basics with muppets: Rocked by the success of children's channels, Sesame Street is returning to simplicity, says Maggie Brown

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It is not a trade secret that children love to learn, says David Britt, president and chief executive of the Children's Television Workshop, the educational charity that makes Sesame Street, aimed at easing three- to six-year-olds towards literacy and the start of school.

Mr Britt's office in New York's cultural heartland, Lincoln Plaza, is adorned with muppet soft toys, Big Bird, Telly Monster, Elmo . . . the characters and merchandise that have helped to fund the programmes for the past 25 years, and which have oiled the diversification into publishing, with products such as Sesame Street comics.

CTW brims with BBC-style Americans sincerely attached to their lofty mission, but at a time of multi-channel expansion and interactive videos it is engaged in heart-searching about what to do next.

'There has been a discovery by the commercial market of the importance of kids. There are cartoons all over the place,' observes Mr Britt.

What has rattled the makers of Sesame Street, as they celebrate the 25th anniversary, has been the growing success of specialist children's channels such as Nickelodeon (launched in the UK on satellite last year), originally pitched at six- to 11-year-olds but now moving fast into the pre-school age-group. These channels, which also feature children debating issues among themselves, have stolen a march by having so much airtime to lay before their young audiences.

It seems to Mr Britt that it is no longer sufficient to make programmes, rely on publicly funded channels to show them, and expect children and parents to hunt them down in a multi-channel, multi-set household.

Mr Britt says CTW is considering starting its own cable channel, as a place 'where kids can always go'. There is also regret that CTW, founded with great vision and a sense of mission, has not built on the international kudos derived from Sesame Street by developing more programmes for older children.

And, while Sesame Street remains CTW's flagship, a new programme, Ghostwriter, is generating most excitement within the organisation. An educational thriller in which words suddenly appear on blackboards, Ghostwriter is co-produced with the BBC and is about to have a third series. It is aimed at the six-to-11s being wooed so hard by rivals.

But CTW is also working to increase its hold on pre-school children with an educational programme that works directly with day-care centre teachers. Its staff show nursery workers or child-minders how to record and use segments of their hour-long programmes. Shirley Braithwaite, educational director of the Reno day centre in Washington Heights, where 90 per cent of the children are from the Dominican Republic, said that before the initiative the class merely sat and watched the programme: now it was used as a valued teaching aid.

This chimes neatly with Sesame Street's high-minded approach: each year's story-lines are devised to conform to an annually updated curriculum. Last year's ran to 54 pages. For instance, it discusses the need to address Americans' 'geographic illiteracy'. Programme-makers translate this into short sequences with continent shapes from which associated products or animals emerge on screen.

Further evidence of the impact of competition is apparent at the Astoria Studios in the New York suburb of Queens, where the muppet sections of Sesame Street are made: 130 in a cramped September to January schedule, leaving little time for remakes.

The executive producer, Michael Loman, a former teacher turned top comedy expert (he won an Emmy for The Cosby Show), who arrived from Hollywood to refresh the show in December 1992, has wasted no time bringing in much change.

The next Sesame Street series, starting in Britain this autumn, takes place on a set doubled in size: there is a new park, a muppet-scale hotel run by monsters, a corner shop, a junk shop and an underground station.

'If we are hung up about whether a script should be more educational, or humorous, we will opt for humour,' says Mr Loman. 'We're not school, not a day-care centre, we are a TV show - which is extraordinary, in that we teach.

It is Michael Loman who has decided that the next season of 130 programmes should concentrate on the teaching of reading - one of Sesame Street's key original aims.

The shift follows research into the literacy of 120 five-year-olds who watched Sesame Street at nursery school. Very few knew their alphabet, raising the uncomfortable prospect that the programme was not doing its job very well for its core American audience. This shift follows four years of race relations themes, putting over the message that 'different isn't scary'.

Sesame Street has scrapped a programme on divorce, because children found it upsetting. It is also an Aids-free zone: 'It is outside their knowledge,' says Mr Loman.

But he has brought more children into the programme: 'We felt in the past that puppets acted out the emotions of children.' He also wants simpler songs, and dance routines that encourage participation. Everyone connected with the programme rejects the notion that educational programming means forcing children to sit still and be passive.

Mr Loman knows from research that children are fascinated by other children, provided that they are behaving normally, and will instantly give their full attention to the programme. Early Sesame Street series did use more children. But puppets are easier, and he has had immense difficulties finding the right sort of children, who can remember lines when co-starring with a muppet.

He has also demanded more female muppets, led by a new recruit, Zoe, acknowledging that the original cast was too male.

Norman Stiles, chief writer for Sesame Street, and the man required to ensure that the lofty curriculum is translated into watchable programmes, describes himself as a comedy writer, and seems more than happy with the changes.

He says the story-lines had become too cluttered for small children. Now there is a new focus on characters and comedy. Mr Stiles slips in and out of muppet-style dialogue with ease, acting out two of the new scripts about a wild flea circus that stays at the Muppet Hotel and escapes; and a baby whose big achievement is that it can make a distinctive sort of 'Blah'. The comforting message is that everyone can do something.

(Photographs omitted)

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