Sesame Street comes to campus

In developing and developed countries alike, children are influenced by anything they see on screens, making meaningful and informational TV shows a priority.

On Sept. 17, the campus welcomed three presenters from Sesame Street to talk about the impact of children’s television programming. One of the show’s producers began the event by discussing how Sesame Street came to be in its earlier days during post-war America’s sudden obsession with television. When it was first released, the show received a great deal of negative feedback and was even blocked in states such as Mississippi. However, early producers were dedicated to establishing the show. “It was clear that children were intrigued by what was on their TV’s, so producers knew they needed to start using that to educate them instead of just entertain them,” the producer said.

The show was successful in its mission for a large impact, and has now been adapted into over 20 different shows around the world. A production manager from Israel discussed Rechov Sumsum, the Israeli version, and its impact on the culture there. The Israeli team’s focus is to make kids open to diversity, especially between Jews and Arabs, encouraging less racism and xenophobia throughout the nation.

Rechov Sumsum offers a look into the Israeli lifestyle through its short documentary segments on topics like religion and ethnicity, but the show is still true to the core of Sesame, filled with the classic animal puppets and the same aesthetic to which American children are accustomed. It’s also a telling reflection of Israeli politics: at one point, Rechov Sumsum joined forces with Palestinian and Jordanian networks so that all three countries were represented in the programming. The show recently broke off again, once more focusing solely on Israel.

The producers looked at other parts of the world as well, using Northern Ireland as another case study to show how politics affect the show.

In a region torn between Catholicism and Protestantism, lessons of acceptance and diversity were once again crucial. Different religious organizations would even donate money to the show in order to sway it one way, but the producers of the Irish Sesame Street remained neutral so that children from both sides could be equally represented.

Following the talk was a workshop session that delved into the production process. Attendees were split into small groups and asked to come up with a version of Sesame Street in a country of their choice and to design a set and characters, as well as write subplots for the show. The lesson here was that each country has its own specific problems, and therefore it is crucial to create characters and lessons that address these problems directly.

Groups suggested the show go to places like South Korea, an island off the coast of Madagascar, and even Waterville, Maine. Each place had its own political issues that were addressed by the group’s characters (e.g. the South Korean Sesame Street idea was to have a mouse tell children about internet addiction, a growing problem in that nation) and the set designs were also particular to the specific country.

The workshop provided comprehensive insight into what it is like to write for children’s television, emphasizing the importance of sending positive messages through a popular medium. The producers responded to each group’s suggestions by giving critiques that the network would provide had the ideas actually been pitched.

The presenters addressed the fact that not every nation is as media-reliant as the United States, which presents a whole different set of obstacles. However, Sesame works to get books and supplies to under-developed locations with little to no access to television, impacting even the places that have not yet heard of great legacies like Elmo and Big Bird. 

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