The Radical History of Sesame Street

50 years after it first aired, remembering the television show’s progressive foundational values

A red muppet visits Oscar the Grouch, inside his garbage can, in a scene from the children’s television program Sesame Street, 1980s. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Children’s Television Workshop

In Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (1964), after Mike Teavee is ejected from Willy Wonka’s tour for teleporting himself into miniature, a cast of Oompa-Loompas issues a stern warning about the nefarious effects of watching television. ‘It rots the senses in the head! It kills imagination dead! It clogs and clutters up the mind! It makes a child so dull and blind,’ they sing. As has been the case for many technological advancements throughout history, the era’s conventional wisdom was quick to treat the rise of television as bad news.

Such was the prevailing attitude when, in 1966, Carnegie Corporation executive Lloyd Morrisett witnessed his three-year-old daughter captivated by the colourful graphics of an early-morning test card, being broadcast on the family television set before daily programming began. Rather than join the calls to deter children from watching television, however, he wondered whether it could, instead, be utilized for a positive pedagogical purpose.

After three years of research and consultation, of a depth and scope highly unusual for children’s television programming, Morrisett and his co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney launched Sesame Street (1969–ongoing). By the end of the show’s first year on air, seven million children were hooked on Big Bird, Elmo and Oscar the Grouch.

Progressive from the start, Sesame Street’s aim was to help disadvantaged young children prepare for school. The producers hired a Harvard professor to design the show’s educational objectives while child psychologists advised on programming; it was to be deliberately racially diverse to counter what senior advisor Dr. Chester Pierce saw as institutional racism in the mass media.

In the opening credits of the pilot episode, a pair of interracial children play on street furniture, weave around high-rises and ask a street vendor for directions. This would have been the first time many inner-city kids saw themselves reflected on television. But Sesame Street was a programme for all children – by 2006 it was being broadcast in 120 countries worldwide; it didn’t just teach the ABCs, it modelled progressive social values for a generation.

Figgy Guyver is editorial assistant of frieze, based in London, UK. She is co-founder and editor of CUMULUS journal. Follow her on Twitter: @FiggyGuyver.

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