June 6, 2017
If you were a child of school age from the late 1960s on, chances are that Sesame Street was part of your daily viewing. The brainchild of WJZ Channel 13 producer Joan Ganz Cooney, Sesame Street broke major ground when it premiered. It introduced a new format of entertainment: television developed specifically to teach, weaving basic counting and literacy skills into witty sketches and catchy songs involving Muppets and human hosts. I was introduced to the show around age 3, and fell in love with it. I was one of a group of kids who not only sang its songs, but learned their ABCs way faster than some. This format was received well by critics and parents alike, and I happen to feel that it is very beneficial.
Too old for Sesame Street? Cooney’s company, the Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop), developed a second program in 1971, The Electric Company, which focused on literacy for school-age children by using animation and human hosts (film stars Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno headlined) to help with grammar skills. This was only the beginning for the fledgling network called PBS, or Public Broadcasting Service.
In cooperation with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, it began to develop a multitude of shows for children. Minister Fred Rogers got in on the act in the early 1970s with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which introduced the ideas of emotions and unconditional acceptance. Schoolhouse Rock is fondly remembered by children of the 1970s, using witty songs like “Conjunction Junction” and “I’m Just a Bill” to elaborate and explain the subjects that kids learned in grade school. A few more examples are Bill Nye the Science Guy, Barney and Friends, and Arthur.
A new network debuted exclusively for these indispensable programs in the 1990s, Nick Jr. The two standouts were Blue’s Clues, which was my absolute favorite growing up, and Dora The Explorer, the first show that focused on teaching kids another language.
Studies have shown that Sesame Street and other educational programs have had a significant impact on those who have watched it. A 2015 study by the Washington Post showed that 14% more students were not behind in school. This stays true to the initial vision for Sesame Street, a television program made exclusively to prepare at-risk children for school. Another study by the Center for Media Literacy showed that 2 year olds who watched educational television scored higher on school standardized tests taken in kindergarten than those who didn’t. The FCC (Federal Communications Commission), in response to these statistics, now requires that channels air at least three hours of educational programs per week. This is not to say that Sesame Street is the only program that has educational value. A Princeton University study showed that Blue’s Clues viewers have better problem solving skills than those who don’t.
But these shows are not just teaching the alphabet and numbers. They also discuss real-world issues, beginning in 1983, when Sesame Street broke ground by discussing the most taboo of subjects-death-and explaining it in a delicate manner. The episode exploring the death of beloved shopkeeper Mr. Hooper (following actor Will Lee’s real-life death) is ranked among critics as the one of the best Sesame Street episodes ever. Stories about marriage and birth followed, chronicling the family that the characters Luis and Maria created. But their exploration of this began even earlier, with stories explaining deafness and sibling rivalry. I think this was a brilliant move, because it allowed kids to look at Sesame Street and see themselves. Other shows soon followed, such as Blue’s Clues, which covered holiday differences(Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Christmas), family growth, and being yourself, and then came Arthur, which covered everything from school fires to cancer of a person close to you. Arthur even included a segment, one of my favorite parts of the show, entitled “And Now A Word From Us Kids”, which showcased a group of elementary schoolers talking or dealing with the same topics.
Recent events, however, threatened to bring this wonderful program known as educational television to a close. Earlier this year the President, in his budget proposal for 2018, threatened to cut funding to both PBS and the CPB(the latter completely), something that, according to CNN, Republicans have been trying to do for years. PBS’ statement also pointed out that it would mean the collapse of public media as we know it. The proposal, however, was denied almost as quickly as it was made, seeing as it was only the first round of the FY 2018 budget. But it made enough of a splash in the news for people to protest, and also to start wondering what would happen if there was no educational television. I think that this is a terrible idea. Not only would it deprive children of an early education, but it would deprive generations of children the joy of learning.
Chances are, one way or another, the shows would’ve been created, but PBS, now a major nonprofit television network, led the way. PBS and its educational television revolution has been ingrained in our memory since the 1960s, and we cannot imagine the world without it. And, in its 46th year, Sesame Street, the show that started it all, shows no signs of showing its age. Just this year, in fact, the show introduced a character on the autism spectrum, a Muppet named Julia.
With new characters leading the way, education will continue to be at the forefront of children’s television. And thousands of children will continue to enjoy the songs and dances, be entertained-and learn.