Revolutionizes Children’s Programming

Blending skills of educators, psychologists, and television producers, Sesame Street emerged as television’s most successful combination of education and entertainment for preschoolers not only in the United States but also around the world. The show remains a staple on public television.

Summary of Event

The Sesame Street children’s television show was in gestation years before it premiered over National Educational Television National Educational Television (NET) on November 10, 1969, and subsequently triumphed before many educators, social scientists, television critics, and its foundation sponsors as well as before general audiences of children and adults. The desire for experimentation with children’s television and the commitments required of talented and experienced educators, psychologists, television executives, producers, and performers were, in substantial measure, elicited or encouraged by the social turbulence and attendant reformism of the 1960’s. Sesame Street (television program)
Television;children’s programs[childrens programs]
Television;public broadcasting
[kw]Sesame Street Revolutionizes Children’s Programming (Nov. 10, 1969)
[kw]Children’s Programming, Sesame Street Revolutionizes (Nov. 10, 1969)[Childrens Programming, Sesame Street Revolutionizes]
Sesame Street (television program)
Television;children’s programs[childrens programs]
Television;public broadcasting
[g]North America;Nov. 10, 1969: Sesame Street Revolutionizes Children’s Programming[10530]
[g]United States;Nov. 10, 1969: Sesame Street Revolutionizes Children’s Programming[10530]
[c]Radio and television;Nov. 10, 1969: Sesame Street Revolutionizes Children’s Programming[10530]
[c]Communications and media;Nov. 10, 1969: Sesame Street Revolutionizes Children’s Programming[10530]
[c]Education;Nov. 10, 1969: Sesame Street Revolutionizes Children’s Programming[10530]
[c]Popular culture;Nov. 10, 1969: Sesame Street Revolutionizes Children’s Programming[10530]
Cooney, Joan Ganz
Morrisett, Lloyd
Lesser, Gerald S.

President John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society—despite their increasing erosion by the Vietnam War and the domestic controversies it engendered—were widely perceived as responses to the nation’s need to address costly and embarrassing social problems: racial injustice, discrimination against minorities and women, urban blight and decay, endemic poverty, epidemic crime and violence, and, underlying them all, perceived failures in American education marked by a “reading crisis.”

Nowhere was educational failure understood to be more apparent than it was among the disadvantaged, most especially among the preschool children of America’s inner cities. This deficiency appeared the more acute because of children’s increasing addiction to television. Widespread concerns were voiced about the low quality of the television children were watching and about its purportedly pernicious effects on their education, character, and social interactions. These alarms were sounded despite a general acceptance of such programs as Ding Dong School, Captain Kangaroo, Exploring, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, presentations of high quality for nursery or preschool children.

Under the auspices of the nonprofit Children’s Television Workshop Children’s Television Workshop[Childrens Television Workshop] (CTW), and with handsome initial funding from the U.S. Office of Education as well as from the private Carnegie and Ford foundations and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett in 1966 began preparations for a new preschoolers’ program combining education and entertainment. Cooney, the planned show’s producer, was an educator and a journalist and had experience in noncommercial television. Cooney would soon be president of CTW. Morrisett was a University of California, Berkeley, psychologist who would become CTW’s board chair. They were joined by Gerald S. Lesser, a Harvard University professor of education and developmental psychology, who filled a vital advisory role and later analyzed the production’s evolution.

Sesame Street’ success was immediate and unprecedented: Here, Big Bird visits First Lady Pat Nixon in the White House on December 20, 1970.

(National Archives)

Conceived as a weekday, hour-long show, Sesame Street was directed primarily at preschool inner-city children. Its purpose was to raise preschoolers’ reading and numbers skills and to do so by entertaining. Cooney, Morrisett, and Lesser, conscious of children’s infatuation with fast-paced television commercials and with the kaleidoscopic comedy flashes characterizing such shows as Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, thought such approaches might be interesting to children, particularly when joined with the tested storytelling and fable traditions of writers such as Sophocles, Aesop, Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain.

The permanent set chosen by the program’s executive producers replicated an inner-city, racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood. The real set, a brownstone structure with an adjacent fenced lot, was on Manhattan’s West Side. Neighborhood “residents” acted as program hosts. A young black couple, Susan and Gordon (a high school science teacher), along with Bob, a white neighbor, were usually found sitting on the front steps talking about local people—and creatures. A nearby candy store was operated by Mr. Hooper (the original show’s only professional actor), who often joined them. Jim Henson Henson, Jim , famed as the voice of Kermit the Frog, further populated the show with his brilliant collection of Muppets Muppets : principally Big Bird, a friendly but incompetent seven-foot yellow canary, Oscar the Grouch, a denizen of local garbage cans, and the Cookie Monster. Other characters, including a girl who was hearing impaired, were added later and were accompanied by an eventual score or more of other Henson creations. The accomplished Joe Raposo supplied the theme and other music.

The show was designed as a fast-paced attention grabber consisting of between thirty and fifty segments of less than three minutes each; some segments lasted only seconds. Much of the hour of show time was composed of rapid sequences of songs, skits, stories, games, puns, and wordplay involving the street’s residents and its fantastic creatures. “Commercials,” dedicated each day to a letter or to numbers, were regularly inserted to teach preschoolers the alphabet and to instruct them on numbers from one to ten. Since one of the producers’ objectives was to appeal particularly to minority children, the show’s characters were richly representative of a racially and ethnically plural society.

Within two years, Sesame Street had earned plaudits from a remarkably wide spectrum of the television viewing community. At the close of its first season, the program won a Peabody Award, which was followed by seventeen Emmy Awards Emmy Awards and, by 1985, more than a hundred further honors. Equally impressive were estimates of the size of the audiences drawn to the 250 public television stations that carried the show. At the end of Sesame Street’s first decade, nine out of ten preschoolers, representing equal percentages of minority and white children and boys and girls, reportedly watched the program.


No other children’s television show had ever enjoyed either the sensational, instantaneous success or the subsequent praise and emulation that came to Sesame Street. If the challenge confronting its producers was to gain a huge audience while openly using the show to educate young children, that challenge was splendidly met. Indeed, the show represented the largest educational experiment ever undertaken. There is also no doubt that it entertained hugely, within the United States and, by 1988, in seventy-three other countries.

Proponents of the show believed that it yielded the first hard evidence that preschool children were capable of learning from visual media at previously unbelievable rates. Unexpectedly, very young children with early exposure to television were found to have brought a startling degree of media literacy to viewing the show. This appeared to be especially true not only of three- to five-year-olds but also of even younger children. Accordingly, data from the show’s producers raised questions about prevailing professional educational and psychological concepts as to what constituted normal childhood development.

Since the effects of television—except for a few monographs on the impact of television advertising and violence on younger children—had scarcely been studied, the show provided fresh sources of research material that caused an explosion of data-heavy publications across the United States and in Europe. Not least, many show participants, in company with other observers, felt that the quality and success of their production lent new measures of respectability to studies of television’s impact on children and raised the prestige of people in the television trade who chose to work on children’s shows. Certainly, the show’s conceptions and production methods set new standards for other educational series.

The continuous innovation and the self-criticisms of its professionals doubtless contributed to Sesame Street’s growing audience strength. Several new characters and creatures were added, as were celebrity guests; skits were dropped or revised, and many other adjustments—the show’s pace was slowed somewhat, for example—were made in light of self-analyses or external complaints. Moreover, when the models of what constituted successful educational television experiments in several European and Asian countries were evaluated by Sesame Street’s producers, they found their own criteria comparable.

Field research, furthermore, indicated that Sesame Street’s preschool viewers did enjoy easier transitions into school and had better preparation for reading and learning numbers than did nonviewers. The extent to which viewers were affected, if at all, by the implicit social pluralism of the show remains unclear, but more than other children’s programs, Sesame Street persistently addressed issues of social relationships, race and ethnicity, women’s roles, traditional perspectives on gender difference, and the environment.

While for years Sesame Street garnered extraordinary numbers of honors and maintained its huge audience, it also provoked acerbic debate and criticism from a variety of qualified observers, from some parents and children, and even from the British Broadcasting Corporation. Some critics found the show to be too fast-paced, with the result that children could barely absorb the contents of one segment before another confronted them. In this regard, the program was deemed overstimulating and likely to produce a generation of “speed freaks.” Others condemned the show because it failed in its declared mission of narrowing the gap between disadvantaged inner-city minority children and those who were advantaged. Specially devised tests did seem to indicate educational gains by minority children, but the gains were minor. There were further complaints that the show’s contents were redundant, merely teaching materials children already were learning or shortly would learn from life experiences. The show’s high expenses also drew fire for having yielded too little of quantifiable social or educational value in contrast to the sums expended.

The consensus seems to be that Sesame Street remains the most massive educational experiment of its kind and that it is a worthy enterprise with worthy, if often unmeasurable, results. Nevertheless, given the dimensions of the problems the program sought to alleviate, it represents a very small effort.

Sesame Street’s mission of contributing to the improvement of literacy at the earliest stages of childhood though, was pragmatically sound. As Cooney explained, “There’s a literacy line. Once you’re above that line you can participate in American life; below it, you can’t.” The show continues to air, reaching and delighting still new generations of children. Sesame Street (television program)
Television;children’s programs[childrens programs]
Television;public broadcasting

Further Reading

  • Chester, Giraud, Garnet R. Garrison, and Edgar E. Willis. Television and Radio. 4th ed. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1971. A useful general look at television and radio through the late 1960’s, including a discussion of women’s and children’s programming and of Sesame Street. Includes a reproduction of one of the show’s scripts. Dated bibliography, many illustrations, and a useful index.
  • Fisch, Shalom M., and Rosemarie T. Truglio, eds. “G” Is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and “Sesame Street.” Mahwah, N.J.: Erlbaum, 2001. Report based on three decades of primary research devoted to the educational and social impacts of Sesame Street on preschool children. Bibliographic references and index.
  • Grossman, Gary H. Saturday Morning TV. New York: Dell, 1981. Provides a survey of children’s programs during the “prime day” allocated to them by commercial networks. Provides a basis for understanding one aspect of what Newton Minnow castigated as the “wasteland” of television as it continued into the opening of the 1980’s. Illustrations, adequate bibliography, index.
  • Lesser, Gerald S. Children and Television: Lessons from “Sesame Street.” New York: Vintage Books, 1974. Still the best, most authoritative, and most interesting work on the subject and the show, by one of Sesame Street’s principal advisers. Prefatory observations by Cooney and Morrisett. Clear, uncluttered, and reflective work. Illustrations, cartoons, photographs, and graphs, along with a splendid bibliography and extensive index. A thoughtful study that is essential—and enjoyable—reading.
  • MacDonald, J. Fred. One Nation Under Television: The Rise and Decline of Network TV. New York: Pantheon Books, 1990. A study of television as America’s principal window on itself and the world, a story shaped by a few evolving networks. In this context, Sesame Street and analogous children’s programs are covered under the title “The Politics of Television.” Some of the influences and failures of the show are noted. Good chapter notes, excellent bibliography, and extensive subject and program indexes.
  • Mayer, Martin. About Television. New York: Harper & Row, 1972. A reportorial analysis of television’s evolution as a vital component of American culture. Much fascinating material, including a chapter on Sesame Street that is laudatory but critical of network reactions to children’s educational television. Raises important questions about the show and its effects. Brief chapter notes; no illustrations or bibliography. Useful index.
  • Morrow, Robert W. “Sesame Street” and the Reform of Children’s Television. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Scholarly study of the impact of Sesame Street in children’s television history. Extensive bibliographic references and index.
  • Palmer, Edward L. Television and America’s Children: A Crisis of Neglect. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Author helped Cooney and others launch Sesame Street, then served with CTW for sixteen years. Excellent, authoritative, well-written, and shocking book concerning the state of children’s television. Must reading. Annotated chapter notes and a fine bibliography, rich in monographs on the show. Useful index. A balanced, reflective insider’s view.

Kukla, Fran, and Ollie Pioneers Children’s Television Programming

Family Comedies on Television Rise in Popularity

Hasbro Advertises Toys on Television

ABC Makes a Landmark Deal with Disney

Captain Kangaroo Expands Children’s Television

The Flintstones Popularizes Prime-Time Cartoons

McLuhan Probes the Impact of Mass Media on Society

Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In Satirizes Social Upheaval

Public Broadcasting Service Airs Its First Program