This year, Sesame Street commemorates five decades of educating children through a combination of puppetry, sketches, animation and live action. What started out as a small dinner party in Manhattan hosted by documentary producer Joan Ganz Cooney and attended by Carnegie Corporation of New York Vice President Lloyd Morrisett back in 1966 became a program that featured the first multiracial cast on children’s television and launched on Nov. 10, 1969. The show was created and run by Sesame Workshop (SW) [formerly the Children’s Television Workshop (CTW)], a research-driven nonprofit. Since its debut, Sesame Street has aired continuously on PBS and as of Jan. 16, 2016, broadcast first-run episodes on HBO. A 1996 survey found that 95 percent of all American preschoolers had watched the show by the time they were 3 years old. In 2018 it was estimated that 86 million Americans had watched the series as children. By 2018, Sesame Street had won 189 Emmy Awards and 11 Grammy Awards, more than any other children’s show.
Ganz Cooney and Morrisett were looking to create a children’s television show that would “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them,” such as helping young children prepare for school. Two years of systematic analysis allowed the newly formed Children’s Television Workshop (CTW) to receive a combined $8 million grant from the Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the U.S. federal government to create and produce a new children’s television show. What the research yielded was the assessment that children are best reached in their earliest years, when lessons can have the biggest impact. Before the age of 5, a child’s brain grows faster than at any other time, laying the foundation for all the learning, behavior, and physical and mental health to follow. Over time, the show has done much to help young children grow to reach their full potential. Sesame Street became the first preschool educational television program to base its contents and production values on laboratory and formative research.
With Ganz Cooney as executive director, a crew was assembled that had previously worked on Captain Kangaroo—Jon Stone (writing/casting/format), Dave Connell (animation), Sam Gibbon (production/research team liaison) and cameraman Frankie Biondo. The addition of Jim Henson and his Muppets was crucial. Ganz Cooney and Henson met at a curriculum planning seminar in Boston. While the latter was reluctant to join the show, he waived his performance fee for full ownership of the Sesame Street Muppets and to split any revenue they generated with the CTW. The characters he created for the show: Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Bert and Ernie, Grover and Cookie Monster were augmented by human characters including Maria Rodriguez (Sonia Manzano), Luis Rodriguez (Emilio Delgado), Gordon Robinson (Garrett Saunders, Matt Robinson, Hal Miller, Roscoe Orman), Susan Robinson (Loretta Long), Bob Johnson (Bob McGrath) and Harold Hooper (the late Will Lee). Events like the real-life passing of Lee back in 1982 and the betrothal of characters Maria and Luis taught children lessons about death, love and marriage. Other topics the series has addressed include child abuse, ignoring stereotypes and learning respect, normalizing the face of HIV and AIDS, autism and resilience and hope in the face of disasters like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina.
While Sesame Street relied on federal funding for its survival, the decision was made to become more financially self-sufficient and instead rely on licensing and merchandising fees, international sales and other media. James Earl Jones was Sesame Street’s first celebrity guest and since then, upwards of 600 celebrities have visited the show, including Stevie Wonder, James Taylor, C3PO & R2D2, Whoopi Goldberg, Robert De Niro, Julia Roberts, R.E.M, Nicole Kidman, Elvis Costello, Nina Simone, Destiny’s Child and many more.
Sesame Street has launched a number of social impact initiatives dating back to 1975’s “Prison Project,” which was launched to bring families together, setting up children’s centers in prisons across the country, where inmates could be with their children in a family- and kid-friendly atmosphere. Other notable projects included 1979’s “Sesame Street Fire Safety Program,” which was launched to deliver simple safety messages to preschoolers, with materials that are still being used today. Initiatives addressing asthma and lead-based paint exposure soon followed. In 2004, Sesame Workshop launched “Healthy Habits for Life,” an initiative to address childhood obesity—which later featured powerful video messages from First Lady Michelle Obama with characters like Elmo, Rosita and Big Bird. Most recently, the series introduced Alex, A blue-haired Muppet whose dad is incarcerated as part of the “Little Children, Big Challenges” initiative in 2013. And the following year, Sesame Workshop created its first global health ambassador Muppet, Raya, to teach children life-saving lessons about water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH). Today, in partnership with World Vision, Raya guides conversations in 14 countries and 30 languages about clean water, handwashing and proper latrine use.
In 2017, Sesame Workshop launched “Sesame Street in Communities,” a program to tackle tough issues that families across the United States are facing, particularly on topics where there are few existing resources for young children. “Sesame Street in Communities” provides tools to help children cope with challenges like parental addiction, foster care or grief—filling a void with free, bilingual resources for community service providers, parents and caregivers.
Over the 50 years that Sesame Street has been airing, there have been 150 versions of the show created that have been produced in 70 languages and airing in more than 140 countries. The new season begins with Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Celebration, a star-studded primetime special that offers a sweeping look at fifty years on the Street. The special will include visits from a number of celebrity guests, including Whoopi Goldberg, Patti LaBelle, Elvis Costello, Meghan Trainor, Sterling K. Brown, Norah Jones, Nile Rodgers and Itzhak Perlman.
Sesame Street’s 50th Anniversary Celebration premiered on Nov. 9 on HBO and will air on Sunday, Nov. 17, on PBS stations and the PBS KIDS 24/7 channel.