The Sociology of Sesame Street

Sesame Street has moved to HBO:

“It is more like things look now,” Ms. Osbahr added. “When Sesame Street was created, it was kind of more like New York Bronx. Now, Oscar has a recycling can. That is amazing.”

“Sesame Street” is performing a delicate balancing act between old and new; even as it seeks to preserve its mission of using the power of entertainment media to educate children, it is trying to remain relevant and available to a generation of children who do not distinguish between a television and a mobile phone screen.

“If you know the audience, you can serve them better, tell better stories, and they will love you more,” said Brown Johnson, executive vice president and creative director at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit group behind the program.

To that end, episodes will be trimmed from an hour to a snappier half-hour, which is viewed as a more manageable amount of time for children to focus. The classic theme song and intro will get a new spin — the song still asks for directions to Sesame Street, but the intro sequence will for the first time take place on the set, which remains at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens.

The new season will feature fewer celebrity and parody segments, largely because preschoolers often do not know the stars or understand the references. More powerful than having a boldface name present the letter of the day, Ms. Johnson says, is to have Gwen Stefani sing about being a best friend. Other celebrity appearances include Pharrell Williams singing “B Is for Book” and Ne-Yo singing “You’ve Got a Body So Move It.” One spoof this season, “Orange Is the New Snack,” about bringing healthy snacks to preschool, airs on Jan. 30.

While Big Bird, Mr. Snuffleupagus, Oscar the Grouch, and Bert and Ernie still make appearances, story lines will feature a smaller group of Muppets — Elmo, Abby, Cookie Monster and Rosita — so that children will see “familiar faces each week,” Ms. Johnson said.

Most impressions of the new show focus on the obvious irony of the paradigmatic public television show now being something you have to pay quite a bit for. Mixed in is the regret (among adult reviewers at least) for the lost freedom, danger, and dirt of yesterday’s childhood compared to today’s overprotected and oversanitized youth:

 

While cutting back some features (the producers have said there will be fewer pop-culture parodies), the show has expanded in other ways. The human cast adds Suki Lopez as Nina, a bilingual Hispanic neighbor. (HBO’s description says she works at the coin laundry and the bike store; perhaps she needs two jobs to afford premium cable.) And a bouncy new closing song stresses social skills as much as the ABCs: “You’re getting smarter, stronger, kinder/On Sesame Street!”
“Kinder”? That’s a lofty promise for a TV show, but then parents have invested a lot of trust in “Sesame Street.” That may be why the HBO deal, even if it got Big Bird a new nest, inspired such Bernie Sandersian outrage. An institution rooted in the ideal of equal opportunity is now, like air travel, one more tiered experience.

PBS will offer half-hour “best of” episodes in the meantime, and it’s not as though scientists are discovering new numbers and letters. But it is dissonant to promote the new format as improved and newly relevant while also arguing that it doesn’t matter how soon children see them.

Maybe the reality is an unpalatable one to say in so many words: Like the newest digital tablet, the latest “Sesame Street” isn’t an essential. But it’s nice, if your parents happen to have the money.

The “Sesame Street” that debuted in 1969, free to the public, was like a tenement commune run by hip parents and their artist friends. The early episodes had beautiful and terrifying number animations scored to wild jazz. In the opening titles, kids frolicked without adult supervision on a city street. Cookie Monster smoked a pipe. The set was gritty and lived-in; incidental traffic noise played over outdoor scenes, and Ernie and Bert shared a dank basement apartment.

It was free-range kids’ TV, experimental, rough and — for all its deserved acclaim — far removed from later generations of educational TV that was sanitized for our protection. A 2006 DVD release of early episodes of the show was labeled “intended for grown-ups.”
“Sesame Street” changed many times before HBO came along. Elmo clawed inexorably up the ranks, claiming the final segment of the show for himself. The theme was rearranged, the color palette brightened. The format — described by one of the show’s creators, Joan Ganz Cooney, as a rapid-fire “‘Laugh-In’ for kids” — became more narrative, like children’s TV on channels like Nickelodeon.

In truth, the new HBO arrangement may make little difference to today’s children, who engage with franchises less through first-run TV than through games, clips and old episodes replayed — and replayed and replayed — on computers and mobile devices. At heart, this latest version isn’t vastly different from the Elmo-dominated, younger-child-focused “Sesame Street” of the past several years.

To an old resident’s eye, though, the neighborhood has changed. In the second new episode, Oscar the Grouch is back, his dented-up trash can ensconced next to a spiffy recycling bin, in one of those tasteful wooden garbage corrals people pay four figures for in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “There’s nothing but niceness on Sesame Street!” he grouses to cheerful Elmo.

Lost sometimes in our reactions to a changing childhood is the way these changes are rooted in our changing conceptions of adulthood– chiefly, that we hardly have any conception of adulthood as an arena with its own unique concerns and preoccupations (except perhaps for sexuality and intoxication, which each grow in imagined importance as other avenues of strictly adult enjoyment recede.) Harry Potter broke so many records for book sales not just because of the increasing globalization of the publishing market, but also because grown-ups without children (particularly adult women) were much more willing to invest emotionally in an entertainment putatively aimed at children. Seven of the top seven films of 2015 would be considered children’s (mostly boys’) entertainment in an earlier era: the new Star Wars, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Furious 7, Minions, and Hunger Games. Many of the arguments over poptimism are best described as music for middle schoolers replacing music for high schoolers in the listening library of 30-something critics.

The original Sesame Street was so different from today’s not just because its creators were less likely to view childhood as a protected arena, sheltered in a deluxe wooden enclosure from the dirt and garbage of the world, and not just because the pop culture parodies and celebrity appearances are no longer necessary to seduce parents into watching with their child, now that we all have our own individual LCD screens. It was also about the message of the show itself. The message of Sesame Street Fever (above) or Stevie Wonder’s classic performance (below) was that there was an adult world and culture into which childhood could adventure, explore, and then return to its own domains and concerns.

 

 

11 thoughts on “The Sociology of Sesame Street

  1. Isn’t the construction of childhood innocence relatively new? If so, there might have been a lot more crossover between child and adult spheres in history than you’re taking for granted. An alternative explanation of comic book movies is that masculinity has been so maligned that adult men are now only allowed to celebrate heroes if they’re totally unrealistic.

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    1. Yeah, I agree with the latter, certainly, and I was thinking more of physical space for kids to run around with each other than of social distinction- it may well be that the 50s through the 70s in the US were a period of abnormal/unusual personal freedom for children in both historical and cross-cultural terms – that seems likely in some ways.

      Whether or not kids before then spent their hours like Tom Sawyer (mostly no), they were less the focus of attention, I think it’s fair to say, even as increasing schooling tried to make them so: http://www.artinthepicture.com/artists/Jan_Steen/school.jpeg

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      1. But not under constant adult supervision- girls were taking care of younger siblings, boys were taking care of animals, etc.
        I should go back and finish reading “centuries of childhood” before I keep spinning this tail.

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  2. Thanks for the tip. Might be interesting to share other things that formed your perspectives to accompany your essays.

    Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life looks like a worthy read. So much of contemporary social order we take for granted… family life, childhood, adulthood. I’ve always had a niggling feeling that neither is the current model very old nor will it likely be sustained in its present form. We’re hardly at a position of stable equilibrium.

    According to Wikipedia, Ariès claims that the nuclear family bonds of love and concern that we now take for granted, did not exist in previous eras. Perhaps what has been characterized as dissolution of family values is merely a reversion to previous models? I enjoyed your essay about school lunches, but it reminded me of the posters around the city where I now live that one sees during the summer offering lunches to young people because school is not in session and they don’t get their subsidized school lunch. I’ve heard some cynical voices claim public schooling accomplishes precious little besides provide the only meal of the day for the offspring of the precariat and underclass. What is the situation? Your experience in the schools and social services has probably given you exposure to these kinds of families. On the one hand I of course imagine poverty making it difficult to provide. On the other hand I thought that there are enough programs, eg SNAP & WIC, so that poverty shouldn’t equal hunger. So what’s going on? Are the parents just to busy and exhausted from their (sometimes several) jobs like you are when you sometimes send your own kids with “an apple and a nutrigrain bar?” Or are they just too indifferent and with chaotic home lives and can’t manage or can’t be bothered to feed their kids? Sesame Street always seemed to me to be analogous to the school lunch program. Perhaps both are helpful and useful resources for loving intact families. But both were conceived primarily to play as a surrogate parents for children lacking these.

    Another thing that seems positively weird to me is how in some classes grandparents have gone from essential, to obsolete, to endangered of extinction now that we are postponing child bearing later and later.

    Also the contemporary rite of passage seems completely alien and unnatural. From a complete sheltered dependency of childhood and adolescence in the family home, to a sudden complete social independence but economic dependence while studying at university and finally complete economic independence after graduation. The milestones of separation, household and family formation seem very much new. Didn’t families also

    Like

  3. Thanks for the tip. Might be interesting to share more things that formed your perspectives to accompany your essays.

    Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life looks like a worthy read. So much of contemporary social order we take for granted… family life, childhood, adulthood. I’ve always had a niggling feeling that neither is the current model very old nor will it likely be sustained in its present form. We’re hardly at a position of stable equilibrium.

    According to Wikipedia, Ariès claims that the nuclear family bonds of love and concern that we now take for granted, did not exist in previous eras. Perhaps what has been characterized as dissolution of family values is merely a reversion to previous models? I enjoyed your essay about school lunches, but it reminded me of the posters around the city where I now live that one sees during the summer offering lunches to young people because school is not in session and they don’t get their subsidized school lunch. I’ve heard some cynical voices claim public schooling accomplishes precious little besides provide the only meal of the day for the offspring of the precariat and underclass. What is the situation? Your experience in the schools and social services has probably given you exposure to these kinds of families. On the one hand I of course imagine poverty making it difficult to provide. On the other hand I thought that there are enough programs, eg SNAP & WIC, so that poverty shouldn’t equal hunger. So what’s going on? Are the parents just to busy and exhausted from their (sometimes several) jobs like you are when you sometimes send your own kids with “an apple and a nutrigrain bar?” Or are they just too indifferent and with chaotic home lives and can’t manage or can’t be bothered to feed their kids? Sesame Street always seemed to me to be analogous to the school lunch program. Perhaps both are helpful and useful resources for loving intact families. But both were conceived primarily to play as a surrogate parents for children lacking these.

    Another thing that seems positively weird to me is how in some classes grandparents have gone from essential, to obsolete, to endangered of extinction now that we are postponing child bearing later and later.

    Also the contemporary rite of passage seems completely alien and unnatural. From a complete sheltered dependency of childhood and adolescence in the family home, to a sudden complete social independence but economic dependence while studying at university and finally complete economic independence after graduation. The milestones of separation, household and family formation seem very much new. Didn’t families generations of families used to stick together in one household?

    Like

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