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Neighborhood watch

40 years after it went on the air, ‘Sesame Street’ stays relevant by adapting to change

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / November 7, 2009

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The toddler who showed up Halloween night in an Elmo costume (brought to our house by the letter H?) knew none of the history behind that furry red suit. “C-c-c-candy!’’ he chirped, reaching for the treat bowl. He was hardly the only pint-sized Elmo roaming the streets, though, one testament to the cuddly Muppet’s 25-year staying power.

On Tuesday, “Sesame Street,’’ the PBS kids’ show that spawned Elmo, Bert, and Ernie, and an entire Muppet menagerie, celebrates its 40th birthday. Born in the era of Woodstock and “Captain Kangaroo,’’ it is simply the most revered and influential children’s television show ever. Hundreds of academic papers have dissected its cultural and educational importance. Millions of parents, teachers, and preschoolers have embraced its educational and entertainment values. With its unique blend of literacy, diversity, and lunacy, “Sesame Street’’ is an irreplaceable original, a late-’60s artifact that has stayed forever young. When Google put Big Bird on its homepage this week, it was a heartfelt salute from New Media giant to Old.

“I can think of few TV programs more important,’’ says University of Central Florida historian Spencer Downing, who’s written extensively on children’s television. Not only is it a worldwide phenomenon, he says, with 77 million viewers in 140 countries, but it has “fundamentally transformed notions of what kids can learn and the modes in which they learn them.’’

The milestone birthday is being marked by a new 13-episode season and by special ceremonies in New York and Washington, D.C. To update this year’s shows, creators have added longer narrative segments, a two-year “green’’ science curriculum, trendy celebrity guests (Christina Applegate, Kobe Bryant, Michelle Obama), fresh parodies (“Mad Men,’’ iPod commercials), and the first CGI-animated Muppet. The old magazine format has been replaced by four “anchor shows’’ interspersed over 60 minutes. Meanwhile, celebrating their collective 75 years on the Street are returning cast members Bob McGrath (Bob) and Roscoe Orman (Gordon). On “Sesame Street,’’ some things rarely change. Nor should they.

The numbers piled up would tax even Count Von Count’s tabulation skills: 7 million current viewers, nearly 4,200 episodes, 122 Grammy Awards, countless books, movies, and videos, a line of merchandise bigger than Snuffleupagus. But to what extent has “Sesame Street’’ fulfilled its original promise? And how has it adapted to a media universe vastly larger than the one it entered 40 years ago? These things are harder to quantify, if no less to marvel at.

“It’s amazing our mission is as strong as ever, namely preparing young kids for school,’’ says executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente, a 21-year show veteran. While “Sesame Street’’ has been “aging down’’ in recent years, she acknowledges, now targeting 2- and 3-year-olds rather than 4s and 5s, the need for early-education tools in user-friendly form is still there. “Parents have grown up with these characters and make us their first choice for young kids,’’ Parente says. “We’re proud of that.’’

The original team behind “Sesame Street’’ included Children’s Television Workshop founder Joan Ganz Cooney, psychologist Lloyd Morrisett, and Harvard education professor Gerald Lesser. Designed as a kind of televised Head Start program, the show borrowed liberally from the quick-cut comedy shows like “Laugh-In’’ and the slick mechanics of TV advertising. As journalist Malcolm Gladwell later wrote, “ ‘Sesame Street’ was built around a single, breathtaking insight: that if you can hold the attention of children, you can educate them.’’

Heavily researched and rigorously pretested on young audiences, “Sesame Street’’ also flouted conventional wisdom by showing fantasy characters interacting with real people. Once perfected, the mix of learning tools and attention-holding clicked right away. “Sesame Street’’ attracted 6 million viewers its first season, or roughly half of all 3-to-5-year-olds in America. By 1970, Big Bird was on the cover of Time magazine and Cookie Monster was co-conducting the Boston Pops.

A team of brilliant writers, musicians, and puppeteers added to the show’s cachet. Led by Jim Henson, Frank Oz, Joe Raposo, and Christopher Cerf, they created a show that appealed as much to parents’ hip sensibilities as it did to preschoolers trying to master their ABCs. Cerf, a founding editor of the National Lampoon, wrote more than 200 songs for the show, among them classics like “Count It Higher’’ and “Put Down the Duckie.’’ He later co-created “Between the Lions,’’ one of many kids’ programs to expand the trail that “Sesame Street’’ blazed.

Today, says Cerf, although “Sesame Street’’ remains clever enough to please adults, some of its original edginess has been lost. “On ‘Monsterpiece Theater,’ for example, you’d see Cookie Monster eating his pipe,’’ Cerf recalls. “Now I’m not sure you could even show a pipe. Political correctness has taken its toll. And aging down becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.’’

By the same token, many praise “Sesame Street’’ for incorporating societal changes into its cast and lesson plan and for exploring difficult issues like death with sensitivity. Forty years ago the program was attacked from many quarters, one psychiatrist warning a US Senate panel it was “fostering a new generation of drug takers’’ with its rapid-fire teaching style. Feminists chided “Sesame Street’’ for its paucity of female characters, and questions about exposing young children to any TV at all have long hovered over “Sesame Street’’ and other kids’ programs.

Over the decades, however, “Sesame Street’’ has stayed remarkably faithful to its original mission. Set from the very beginning in a racially mixed urban neighborhood, it has diversified its cast more and more while including, inter alia, people with disabilities. Mr. Hooper’s store has morphed into a bodega. Cookie Monster now eats vegetables. “The show’s creators have always taken criticisms to heart,’’ says Spencer Downing. “But their attitude has also been ‘OK, you try to do better.’ ’’

To Harvard Education School professor Joe Blatt, who lectures on children and media and who counts himself a longtime fan, “Sesame Street’’ has brilliantly fulfilled its original mission. “It’s undisputable that the show is the most thoroughly researched educational invention ever,’’ says Blatt. “Not only does it teach a specific curriculum, but it really helps kids achieve school-readiness and gives them a positive attitude toward academic achievement.’’ By incorporating the latest educational research, adds Blatt, the show continues to hit the Refresh button in ways media-conscious parents can applaud.

In Cerf’s view, “Sesame Street’’ was and remains among the most important shows the medium has ever hatched. “It really was a revolutionary project when Joan and Gerry conceived it,’’ he says, “and in many ways it has really worked, too.’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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