If you are under the age of 50, there’s a good chance you are fiercely attached to Sesame Street, the show that shepherded so many of us through our toddler years.
You may remember sitting in rapt attention, wondering if anybody would believe that Mr. Snuffleupagus was real, or giggling hysterically about Oscar the Grouch’s musical ode to trash. For generations of viewers, Sesame Street is a portal to a simpler, more innocent time in their lives. This creates something of a quandary for the show’s producers: how do you keep evolving a show so it doesn’t get stale without offending its devoted fans?
"It’s a lot harder than we make it look," says Carol-Lynn Parente, executive producer of Sesame Workshop, who’s spent 25 years lovingly crafting the content of the show. "When you’re trying to keep a brand that is 45 years old fresh, you have to do it within the essence of what it is. Trying to stay relevant within the confines of people’s expectations is a tricky fence to walk."
To make things even more complicated, Parente tells Fast Company that Sesame Street—whose 45th season launches today—is written on two levels: for children, of course, but also for the parents who are watching with them. She says the show was never meant to simply educate children, but to foster better communication between toddlers and their caregivers. "The show has to be furry, heartfelt, educational, funny, and clever for both adults and children," she says. "Any piece of content you produce always has to be some version of all of those things mixed into one."
While some of the curriculum stays the same—preschoolers always need to learn the alphabet and how to count—she says it is important for Sesame Street to keep changing to meet the needs of each generation. The Sesame Workshop, where Parente is senior vice president of content and executive producer, tests ideas and gathers research for each season. Every year, with the help of child development experts, her team investigates what preschoolers and their families are currently dealing with, in order to tackle them. Some issues are relatively easy to deal with. For instance, Sesame Street has been helping kids develop healthier habits in the wake of the obesity epidemic and encouraging toddlers to get excited about science, technology, engineering, and math.
Other topics are trickier. There is a particular outreach wing at the Workshop that targets communities dealing with specific circumstances, for instance, families facing divorce, incarceration, and parents being deployed in the military. Sesame Street hasn’t shied away from representing these issues on screen. In 2013, a character called Alex talks to his friends about his dad who is in prison. In South Africa, one character, Kami, is diagnosed wish AIDS and, in one scene, President Bill Clinton chats with her about her life. These are heavy topics for the toddler set.
"We bring in experts who can teach us how to bring up these issues to a very young audience," Parente says. "The characters will react the way a preschooler might. They’re sad, happy, confused, or even feeling things they don’t know how to identify." She says that part of these initiatives is to help parents begin to ask the right questions so that children are able to label their emotions and articulate what they are going through.
While content is key, the medium through which ideas are communicated is also important. There is a wing of the Workshop called the Innovation Lab that focuses on staying at the forefront of emerging technology and thinking about how each new device that hits the market can be used to help children learn. In fact, Sesame Street’s tech experts are often speakers at the Consumer Electronic Show. Parente tells me that developers hardly ever think about preschoolers, so by partnering with technologists early on, they are able to adapt new technologies to meet children’s needs. "The great thing is that when they perfect that technology, we’re right there about to have products that can launch."
Right now a big focus for Sesame Workshop is voice technology. While major advances are taking place in this field, it’s very hard for children to use it because they do not enunciate as clearly as adults. "How powerful would it be if preschoolers could talk in these digital platforms and have a character respond directly to them?" Parente says. To turn this into a reality, the Workshop is hard at work with companies to find solutions.
Sesame Street has a plethora of apps on the market, both free and for purchase. These products are designed to make learning fun: Cookie’s Cart Racing teaches executive function skills while taking kids on a tasty ride around Cookie Monster’s world. But in some cases, there is also a larger strategy to help parents and children navigate the brave new digital world. There is an effort to encourage parents and children to connect over technology, rather than to allow it to create distance between them through such platforms as the Family Play app, which suggests non-screen time games and activities for kids and parents. "It’s using the technology that parents are addicted to in a way that a whole family can play together," says Parente. "It allows them to detach from devices when they are in the park or supermarket and engage in family time instead."
While the content and platforms are constantly evolving, Parente says that there is a strong focus on staying true to the spirit of Sesame Street. The show is televised in over a hundred countries, sometimes dubbed. There are also local versions of the show in countries like South Africa and Mexico, which are co-produced with producers from the head office, so that it stays on brand. In some ways, the fact that time goes on and things change is built into the brand's DNA. "We’re a real neighborhood where real things happen," says Parente. "We do fun and we do funny, but we also do real events and real problems."
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