Sesame Street Marks 45 Birth­day

The Star (St. Lucia) - - LOCAL - By Beth J. Harpaz

You don’t get to be the long­est-run­ning chil­dren’s show in US TV his­tory by do­ing the same thing over and over. So even though par­ents who grew up watch­ing “Sesame Street” can still see old favourites like Big Bird, things on the street have changed since the show de­buted 45 years ago on Novem­ber 10, 1969.

Cookie Mon­ster now ex­er­cises self-con­trol and some­times eats fruits and vegetables. Mil­lions of kids watch the show on phones and com­put­ers in­stead of TV. And there’s less time spent on the street with hu­man char­ac­ters. They’re just not en­er­getic enough for to­day’s view­ers.

In Bri­tain, a BBC kids’ show, “Blue Peter,” is even older — on since 1958 — but that “Sesame Street” still ex­ists in the US at all, given the com­pe­ti­tion here, says a lot.

In 1973, it was one of two shows on US tele­vi­sion for preschool­ers. Now it’s com­pet­ing with 84 kids’ shows on TV and count­less oth­ers on­line.

Yet “Sesame Street” still holds its own, rank­ing 20th among kids ages 2 to 5 with 850,000 view­ers per TV episode, ac­cord­ing to Sesame Work­shop, the non­profit or­gan­i­sa­tion be­hind the show.

But now half the view­ers watch it in dig­i­tal for­mats. Op­tions in­clude SesameStreet. org, PB­SKids.org, Net­flix, Ama­zon, iTunes and some 50 apps.

A “Sesame Street” YouTube chan­nel has a mil­lion sub­scribers and 1.5 bil­lion views. And touch­screens have been “a magic wand for us in terms of en­gage­ment,” says “Sesame Street” se­nior vice pres­i­dent Scott Cham­bers. Kids can trace let­ters or point to colours or shapes, and the app pro­vides pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment.

“Sesame Street” also has the high­est “co-view­ing” ex­pe­ri­ence — mean­ing adults watch­ing with kids — of any preschool show: 49 per cent of “Sesame Street” view­ers are over age 18. “We’re very proud of that,” said Cham­bers. “We de­sign the show to en­gage the par­ent be­cause we know that’s more ed­u­ca­tional. If you have a par­ent watch­ing with you, you’re go­ing to learn much more.”

That’s why sketches of­ten have con­tem­po­rary celebrity guests or pop cul­ture ref­er­ences that 2-year-olds don’t get, but adults do. A James Bond par­ody stars Cookie Mon­ster as a se­cret agent, Dou­ble-Stuffed 7, in “The Spy Who Loved Cook­ies.”

Another show cel­e­brates “what makes peo­ple spe­cial,” with Elmo telling Lupita Ny­ong’o that her skin “is a beau­ti­ful brown colour.”

The ac­tress re­sponds, “Skin comes in lots of beau­ti­ful shades and colours … I love my skin!” It’s a clas­sic “Sesame Street” les­son about di­ver­sity that goes back to its ground­break­ing roots as one of the few shows in the 1970s to fea­ture all races and eth­nic­i­ties. To­day the show also rou­tinely fea­tures chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties.

The mu­sic has changed too. Those mem­o­rable lyrics, “Sunny day, sweepin’ the clouds away, on my way to where the air is sweet,” still open ev­ery episode, but now the song has a syn­co­pated, jazz­ier beat. Other sketches fea­ture hip-hop or Latin mu­sic.

In one new episode, rocker Elvis Costello pops up singing, “A mon­ster went and ate my red two” to the tune of his fa­mous line, “An­gels wanna wear my red shoes.” The Drac­ula-like Count von Count pup­pet uses a disco beat to teach a les­son about the num­ber nine in his “Num­ber of the Day” seg­ment, and ev­ery episode ends with “Elmo the Mu­si­cal,” with Broad­way-style songs and a vel­vet cur­tain.

Newer sea­sons also fea­ture less of the ac­tual street with hu­man char­ac­ters, and more pup­pets in skits with an­i­ma­tion or other tech­ni­cal wiz­ardry. Ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Carol-Lynn Par­ente says the pup­pets “have a mad­cap en­ergy to them” that helps “Sesame Street” com­pete with the many other kids’ shows that are an­i­mated.

“Sesame Street” also is unique be­cause be­fore any scripts are writ­ten, child de­vel­op­ment ex­perts of­fer in­put on what to­day’s kids need to suc­ceed in school. That’s why in ad­di­tion to teach­ing let­ters, num­bers and val­ues, the show now teaches be­hav­iours like im­pulse con­trol and lis­ten­ing to di­rec­tions.

“Cookie Mon­ster has been our poster child for sel­f­reg­u­la­tion be­cause of his love of cook­ies,” said Par­ente. The pup­pet some­times now eats fruits and vegetables in­stead — although he may also de­vour the plate, ta­ble and chair.

Elmo also re­mains a cen­tral part of the show, de­spite a re­al­world scan­dal in which three men ac­cused the pup­peteer be­hind Elmo, Kevin Clash, of un­der­age sex­ual abuse. Those law­suits were dis­missed in 2013 be­cause the statute of lim­i­ta­tions on the ac­cu­sa­tions had run out.

Lupita Ny­ong’o, one of the most re­cent celebri­ties to

ap­pear with Elmo and lay down is­sues of di­ver­sity.

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