Why Sesame Street still counts

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

It's four decades since the residents of one of the most famous addresses on TV made their debut. Guy Adams reports on an educational institution

The letter of the day will be "H" as in "hug" or "hungry" or even "happy birthday." The number of the day will be "40," the exact length of time, in years, that it has been on air. The programme reaching this milestone is, of course, Sesame Street.

Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert, Ernie and their multicoloured friends will enter a fifth decade next Tuesday. Their 4,187th public outing, more than any other in the history of children's television, will be celebrated with an appropriately lofty guest star: Michelle Obama.

The booking is, in its own way, a symbol of Sesame Street's extraordinary success. Founded to help educate American pre-schoolers, especially in the inner cities, the programme has always been as ethnically diverse as the society it would go on to shape. One might argue, at a push, that the first African-American President owes his election to Sesame Street's former viewers.

Like generations of celebrity guests, Mrs Obama will help to explain the subtleties of reading, writing and arithmetic to her young audience. Then, with the help of Big Bird, an enormous ostrich-like creature, she'll rattle through a valuable life lesson. "Veggies taste so good when they come from the garden, don't they?" a gathering of under-fives will be told. "If you eat all these healthy foods, you are going to grow up to be big and strong." The creator of the White House kitchen garden will flex her famously elegant arms, and add: "Just like me!"

Sesame Street has won over a hundred Emmys and has been broadcast in roughly 150 countries. It retains an uncanny ability to both reflect the times, and provide a public service: songs and storytelling to educate its young viewers.

It has at times boasted a distinctly subversive edge, not lost on older viewers. The coming season, for example, features a parody of the modish TV drama series Mad Men called Muppet Men, in which the characters create adverts prompting emotions; happy, mad, sad.

Conservative bloggers were moved to outrage this week after it emerged that one episode will see a puppet criticise Rupert Murdoch's "Pox news".

In a way, it was ever thus. When Sesame Street was first developed, in the late 1960s, creators wanted to revolutionise children's television then dominated by commercially-driven cartoons.

Joan Ganz Cooney, the new show's executive director, stung by the discovery that cartoonscontained an average of 20 violent episodes an hour, was determined Sesame Street would be different. It was funded by a non-profit organisation called the Children's Television Workshop and the format developed by teams of educationalists and child behavioural specialists. The result, tested on hundreds of children in New York, was an hour long. It had five human hosts, alongside Jim Henson's Muppets, role-play, games, music, short films, cartoons and catchy jingles. Within a week, the public broadcaster PBS had a number one hit on its hands. Big Bird made the cover of Time in 1970. Kermit and Elmo spawned ranges of toys, books, and spin-off shows, inserting themselves into the childhood of 40 years worth of American youngsters.

In recent years Sesame Street has faced challenges. It can sometimes seem at odds with the era of political correctness. The Cookie Monster has been accused of promoting obesity and sponsorship by McDonald's was drew wide criticism. The show still attracts big name guest-stars but is up against competition from newer forms of entertainment. Even the programme's core values have changed. In 1970 it taught racial tolerance, now young viewers hear about the environment or healthy food. In an episode of the new series a child talks about her mother's yoga class. "I love yoga," she announces. "When I grow up, I want to be a yoga teacher."

But the search engine Google included "doodles" of Sesame Street characters on its homepage this week. Proof, perhaps, that in the internet era, the show has what it takes to remain an essential part of the American childhood for decades to come.

Famous faces on their furry friends

MICHELLE OBAMA "I never thought I'd be on Sesame Street with Elmo and Big Bird... It's probably the best thing I've done at the White House."

JAMES BLUNT "I always wanted to be a Muppet. So when Sesame Street approached me, I thought: 'I'm going to be on this!' It's pretty incredible stuff."

RICKY GERVAIS "You know you've made it when you get asked to do Sesame Street or sing with a little furry puppet. It's quite weird in a funny way."

KOFI ANNAN "Elmo and his friends, they tell it straight... Keep it simple and it brings you back to earth. I think that is very important, we all need that."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
News
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
News
people
Voices
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Guru Careers: Management Accountant

£27 - 35k + Bonus + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Management Accountant is needed ...

Guru Careers: Recruitment Resourcer / Recruitment Account Manager

£20 - 25k + Bonus: Guru Careers: Are you a Recruitment Consultant looking to m...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'