Big Bird is in trouble. Again. It seems that in a recent Sesame Street segment he was vaccinated for the Coronavirus even though real six-year-olds—his perennial age—are not yet approved to get it. But that minor anomaly was not what caused Texas Senator and buffoon Ted Cruz’s head to explode. It was that the large ambling avian got the shot at all—proof, he claimed, that the PBS staple was just a propaganda shill of the Biden administration and a tool for brainwashing toddlers and their mommies. He smelled a whiff of conspiracy in the air. On cue the whole Repugnant messaging machine spring into action. The echo chamber was never louder. One Fox News host even challenged “cowardly” Muppets to a debate on his show. He should be careful what he wishes for. On an off day Elmo would demolish him before you could count to ten.
These hair-on-fire attacks are hardly new. Big Bird and the show that made him a star have attracted conservative wrath from the beginning. As we shall see, attempts to ax the show and its most iconic character have routinely backfired. But despite their legendary on message appeals to their base hyper conservatives have routinely shot themselves in the foot over it.Original Sesame Street cast in 1969.
Muppet creator Jim Henson died long ago. In 2017 original cast member Bob McGrath was unceremoniously dumped by producers. The next year Caroll Spinney who was Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch retired and then died in 2019. Children’s Television Workshop took heat for making a deal to show new episodes of the program on HBO weeks before they aired for the freeloading rabble on Public Television as well as for relentless merchandising of iconic characters. But after 52 years Sesame Street rolls unstoppably along.
It first came on the air on November 10, 1969 on the broadcasting ghetto of National Educational Television (NET), the home of study-at-home instructional programs, stultifying documentaries, and it’s-good-for-you highbrow cultural castor oil. There was little hope that the main target audience—urban preschoolers from the kind of homes where books were far rarer than unpaid bills—would ever find the damn thing. Low and behold some of them did—along with millions of unexpected middle class kids and their parents. They all found their way to Sesame Street.
The show began to take shape more than two years earlier in a do-gooder’s conversation with a potential deep pockets donor. Joan Ganz Cooney was a television producer unhappy with her job and her medium. She tended to agree with Newton Minnow’s famous assessment that despite of its early promise, TV fare had deteriorated to “a vast wasteland.” Why not, she asked Lloyd Morrisett, vice president of the Carnegie Foundation, create a program aimed at very young children which would “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them?”The original Children's Television Workshop logo has given way to successive colorful and modernized versions.
Cooney agreed and the two soon founded something called the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) to make that vision a reality. For two years they commissioned all sorts of academic studies of how children learn, consulted with educators and experts, commissioned tests and surveys. They also raised money—a ton of it. Not only from Cooney’s Carnegie Foundation, but big grants from the Ford Foundation and the Federal Government, $8 million in all or about half of what it took Disneyland to open in 1955.
The show would reflect all of that research and money. Catering to the short attention spans of the target audience, segments would be brief—almost all under 2 minutes—colorful, musical, and varied. Animated lessons in counting and the ABCs were broken up by films snips often of children in a real big city riding busses, crossing busy streets with their parents, visiting neighborhood parks. Children and families in those clips were purposely drawn from different races and ethnicities. These segments would loosely be tied up by live actor/hosts portraying residents of a typical New York City brownstone block, a little rundown at the heels, anchored by a friendly neighborhood store.
Did I forget to mention the Muppets? Maybe CTW biggest coup was bringing Jim Henson and his already established star character Kermit the Frog on board. Henson and his crew of created dozens of new puppets, many of which were break-out stars on their own before the first season was over—Big Bird; his pal shy, hairy Snuffleupagus; Oscar the Grouch; Cookie Monster; Count Von Count, and the odd couple Bert and Ernie. Research showed that kids responded so strongly to the Muppets segments, that more were commissioned and added as the season rolled on.The current Sesame Street Muppets. Children's Television Workshop now owns them exclusively and the Jim Henson organization and parent company Disney now have no control or voice in them or any new Muppet characters on the show.
When children interacted with the live actors or Muppets, child actors were never used. Kids recruited mostly from New York public schools and their younger siblings were used, giving spontaneity to segments that children recognized as genuine.
When the show debuted, no one had ever seen anything like it. People were used to local TV children’s shows with host clowns or cowboys introducing variety acts and cartoons—the format perfected by Howdy Doody and Bozo and copied in even the smallest markets—or Saturday morning “children’s blocks” on network TV dominated by re-runs of old live action series like The Lone Ranger, Cisco Kid, and Sky King, or old theatrical cartoons. Captain Kangaroo and Shari Lewis were considered gentle programing for the younger set, but not—at least until Sesame Street, when they revised their approach, considered educational.
By the end of the year NET had what it never expected—a hit television show. A show so successful it changed public broadcasting from the old “educational TV” model. With money pouring in from new subscribers, donors, corporations, and the Feds they reimagined themselves and less than a year after the premier of Sesame Street emerged as the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) on October 5, 1970.
To their chagrin, however, CTW honchos discovered that their main audience was not the hoped for urban poor, but the comfortably suburban middle class and young families already fretting over their children’s educational development. The producers could have recalibrated the show to this demographic. And of course, to some degree they did, but they refused to give up the urban setting, the multi-racial and multi-cultural cast. Sesame Street remained a city block, not a suburban cul-de-sac. And in doing so the show taught generations of kids about diversity and accepting people who don’t look or speak like they do.
Over the years the show adapted, particularly after it was determined that it would last long after its anticipated two year run. They had to do more than just repeat the alphabet and numbers endlessly, although some of the first of those educational clips continue to be sparingly used to this day.
When research showed that children who watched with a parent or care giver got more lasting benefits from the show than those just plunked down in front of the set with the expectation of it being a babysitter, producers decided to try and attract more adult viewer by adding cameo appearances by major stars and celebrities. Soon the biggest names in Hollywood and the music business were clamoring for chances to do the show. They could not plug their latest work. In most cases their names were never even mentioned. Generally, they had to interact with real children in short encounters. Early stars appearances included Harry Bellefonte, Dan Blocker of Bonanza, Candice Bergen, Cab Callaway, Ray Charles, Whoopi Goldberg, Lena Horne, Michael Landon, Rita Moreno—who became a semi-regular, Malvina Reynolds—also a cast member in season 4, Buffy Sainte-Marie, and Lillie Tomlin.Rita Moreno was one of many stars who visited Sesame Street and became a semi-regular. She went on to be cast member of CTW's sister show for older children Electric Company and was re-untied with Henson's Muppets in an Emmy Award winning guest spot on The Muppet Show in 1977.
The show adapted in other ways. After the mid-70’s they began to spend more time on children’s emotional development including dealing with the events and traumas of real life. Famously they dealt openly with the death of a beloved original character, Mr. Hooper, the proprietor of the local store. The romance and marriage of Luis and Maria became a season-long story arc as did the birth of Miles, the baby of another cast pair and the show traced his growth and development. Teen age characters with real problems like older brothers and sisters often had were introduced. Divorce and even abuse would be carefully touched on.
Despite all of its success, the show was not without its critics. Some child development experts came to believe that the rapid fire style deprived children of the ability to develop longer concentration skills. Educators found that their classrooms were filled with restive youngsters who were bored by their best efforts and lessons. Some doubted the long term advantage of early exposure to elementary basics saying it seemed to evaporate by second grade.
The Nixon administration became nervous about the direction of the show and the Education Department wrangled with producers over funding and content. In 1972 they did not deliver promised support until the last day of CWT’s budget year, nearly crippling production. Signs were out that direct Federal support would be cut off entirely, and indeed it eventually was. That caused producers to turn increasingly to licensing of Sesame Street characters and songs to producers of books, records, toys, and an infinite variety of special merchandise. Eventually live stage and ice show toured paying handsome royalties. Along with the sale of rights to do versions of the show in 40 countries, CWT was soon making very good money indeed. In 1998 it even began accepting direct corporate sponsorship for the broadcasts. These developments drew harsh criticism from some on the left, including Ralph Nader who called for a boycott for “exploiting impressionable children.”
But the complaints of commercialism from the left paled before the growing outrage of the right. As noted, suspicion of the program began within the first few years under Nixon. It only grew. By the ‘90’s the right wing think tanks were producing reports calling the show thinly disguised liberal propaganda. It was never really that, but the generations of children who grew up watching it were taught tolerance and respect for others and grew up with far different racial ideas and attitudes than their parents—even in the Deep South. Women were portrayed as strong and capable and all sorts of families with and without men present were shown as happy and normal. Kids were taught cooperation and community as values, to the omission, conservatives charged, of individualism and competition. There was no inoculation of patriotism and religion was hardly ever mentioned.Democrats have made political hay out of Republican efforts to defund PBS. Killing Big Bird even became a major campaign issue used against Mitt Romney in 2004.
The right would occasionally surface with direct blasts at Sesame Street, but it turned out to be unpopular—Republican mommies were just as enthralled by the program a Democratic bra burning, Hadrian feminazis. So, they concentrated their fire obliquely on Public Broadcasting and have spent more than two decades trying to slash or completely de-fund it. Despite the fact that the program has not received a direct dime of support from the Feds in years, Democrats are always ready and gleeful to charge that Congressional Republicans are trying to “kill Big Bird.” And the charge sticks every time—in no small way because the public recognizes a glimmer of truth behind the hyperbole. Tea Party Representatives in the early 2000s reported hearing more protests about that than any other issue.
In 52 years on the air, there have been changes. Elmo, the impossibly cute perianal two-year-old, became such a star that his occasional segments became his own daily feature. The hectic pace and fast cuts of the early years have been slowed down. More time is spent “live” on the Street between segments and story arcs are more completely played out.
More change was inevitable. And it didn’t make conservatives happy. Long time couple Bert and Ernie were acknowledged to be Gay,Bert and Ernie have been outed as a Gay couple.
The rise of cable TV and various kinds of on-demand media—including gaming for very young children—has eaten into the audience. Ratings are down and Sesame Street is no longer the only game in town.
But it is not going away anytime soon. A third maybe even fourth generation, of young parents is sitting down with their toddlers and turning on the giant flat screen. Big Bird is bigger and brighter than ever in HD. In my house my daughter Maureen and I watch with 23-month-old baby Matilda. With fond tears in our eyes, we sing along:
Sweepin, the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Sesame Street
Come and play
Friendly neighbors there
That's where we meet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street
It’s a magic carpet ride
Every door will open wide
To happy people like you--
Happy people like
What a beautiful
Sweepin’ the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get,
How to get to Sesame Street...
How to get to Sesame Street
How to get to...