Angela Zugay 1
Sesame Street is an American
educational children’s television series
and a pioneer of the contemporary
educational television standard,
combining both education and
entertainment. Sesame Street is well
Million Weekly Viewers known for its Muppets characters
created by Jim Henson. It premiered
on November 10, 1969, and is the
longest running children’s program
on television. In 1966, The Carnegie
Institute hired Joan Ganz Cooney to
study how the media could be used to
help young children, especially those
from low-income families, learn and
prepare for school.Cooney proposed
Continuously Running Seasons
using television’s “most engaging
traits”, including high production
values, sophisticated writing, and
quality film and animation, to reach
the largest audience possible. Sesame
Street was built around a single,
breakthrough insight: that if you can
hold the attention of children, you can
Country Broadcasts 2
First children’s show to incorporate an early
Studied how kids learn from TV, developed format based on
findings and experimentation.
Format developed through scientific research in
Resulting format: 30-90 second clips featuring interaction of
live & imaginary characters, incorporating educational themes
Spun off from philanthropic nonprofit
In the mid-1960’s: Lloyd Morrisett, VP studying cognitive development and the education gap affecting underprivileged
children is inspired by his 3-year-old daughter’s ability to memorize commercial jingles. Forms hypothesis that television,
now in 97% of U.S. homes, can be used to educate children. He then contacts TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney and
commissions her to do a 3-month study, producing the report “The Potential Uses of Television in Pre-School Education,”
which becomes basis for development. Carnegie partners with The Ford Foundation and secures additional funding from
U.S. Dept of Education to form “Children’s Television Network” as a development and production company for what will
eventually be Sesame Street.
The Children’s TV Market Before Sesame Street
• With proliferation of TV in 1950’s, children’s programs were mostly live-action variety shows,
most notably puppet-hosted “Howdy Doody” .
• By the 1960s, live action was almost entirely replaced by animation: The Flintstones, The
Jetsons, Rocky & Bullwinkle, Space Ghost.
• Some popular live-action host-centered shows remained; Captain Kangaroo, from 1955, Mr.
Rogers’ Neighborhood introduced 1968.
• While some of these shows had elements of education, none focused on a preschool
Rocky & Rogers
Study how the
media could Goals & Priorities For Each Season
be used to
• Curriculum planning
• Producers and writers
with a crash course in child
and preschool education.
• Involved entertainment
people, educators and
The Muppet characters were created
to fill specific curriculum needs. For
example, Oscar the Grouch was
designed to teach children about their
positive and negative emotions.
Test episodes for testing whether children (preschoolers) found them comprehensible and appealing. Used laboratory-oriented
research. Results were “generally very positive. Children paid more attention to the Muppet segments than the street
segments with the humans that all of the learning took place. Decision to defy the recommendations of their advisers. Henson
and his team created Muppets (BigBird and Oscar) that could specifically interact with the human actors, and that preschoolers
are more sophisticated television viewers than originally thought. This testing was strongly influenced by behaviorism which
was a prominent movement in psychology in the late 1960s.
The Distractor Method
• Two children at a time were brought into the laboratory and shown an episode on a television monitor and a slide show next to it.
• The slides would change every seven seconds, and researchers recorded when the children’s attention was diverted from the episode.
Eyes on the Screen Method
• Modified distractor method
• Collected data from larger groups of children simultaneously.
• Tested for more “natural” distractions, or the distractions that other children provide in group viewing situations.
• Engagement measure, which recorded children’s more active responses to an episode, like laughing and dancing to the music.
Prevailing understanding thinks kids have short attention spans. Magazine format, tells a story in 30-second
segments. Cognitive psychologists recommended never to mix Muppets and people, it could confuse the
kids. The lessons were in the ‘street scene’ portion of the show with humans (about 10min of lessons took
about 45 minutes to tell due to these interludes).
Radically redesign format, ratings decline, competing programs. Traditional magazine-format was not the
most effective way to hold their attention. How children’s viewing habits had changed in thirty years. Show
was produced for three to five year olds, children began watching it at a younger age. As a result, the target
age for Sesame Street shifted downward, from four years to three years.
Short segment that targeted the developmental age of the show’s newer viewers began to be shown
at the end of each episode. Used traditional elements (animation, Muppets, music, and live-action film).
Depended heavily on repetition. Took place in a stylized crayon-drawing universe. Elmo was chosen as the
host because he had always tested well with them.
Interludes Lessons Elmo’s World
Spin-Offs Other Shows
Tickle Me Elmo is one of the most
successful toy fads ever. Over a
million of the dolls have been sold
since its introduction in 1996. It
proved so popular that shortages
led to price gougers selling the $30
toy for more than $1500.
Studies on Sesame Street’s educational influence
Most recent longitudinal study published in early 2000 which was
based on a low-income neighborhood in Kansas City:
• Showed a positive effect on the vocabulary and math skills of
preschoolers who watched an average of two hours a week.
• Showed positive effects on readings and achievement lasted
through high school.
• Showed that kids as young as 2 can count 1 to 20 and up to
100 if counting by 10s. 11
Sesame Street is the first show
to present a number of social
issues to children for the first
time, several of these include:
AIDS (in Africa)
Kosovo and ethnic differences
Healthy eating/public health
Sesame Street needs to meet a double
bottom line. Not only must it stainability
maintain and grow its viewer base and
secure funding to maintain its financial
viability, it must also show that it meeting
its social goals of educating youth who have
limited educational opportunities.
Viewership Trends by Decade
In Relation to Show Format.
1969 1979 1989 1999 2009
Alexander, Allison. “Children And Television. The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Web. 8 Mar. 2010.
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Davis, Michael. Street Gang: the Complete History of Sesame Street. New York: Penguin, 2008. Print.
Fisch, Shalom. Children’s Learning From Educational Television: Sesame Street and Beyond. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlaum
Associates Inc, 2004. Print.
Gardner, Elysa. “At 40, ‘Sesame Street’ Is in a Constant State of Renewal. USA Today. 10 Nov. 2009. Web. 22 Feb. 2010. <www.
Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. NYC: Little, Brown and Company, 2000. Print.
Guernsey, Lisa. “‘Sesame Street’ The Show That Counts. Newsweek. 23 May 2009. Web. 22 Feb. 2010. <www.newsweek.
Salamon, Julie (2002-06-09). “Children’s TV catches up with how kids watch” New York Times. http://www.nytimes.
com/2002/06/09/arts/children-s-tv-catches-up-with-how-kids-watch.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=all. Retrieved 2010-03-05.
“Sesame Street: Forty Years of Sweeping the Clouds Away. Sesame Workshop. Web. 08 Mar. 2010.
Sesame Street and the Reform of Children’s Television. Johns Hopkins Univ Pr, 2008. Print.
Wilson, Craig (2009-01-02). “’Sesame Street’ is 40 but young at heart” USA Today. http://www.usatoday.com/life/books/
news/2008-12-30-sesame-street_N.htm. Retrieved 2010-03-05.