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The Future of Sesame Street Is Kinder and Gentler, With Fewer Puppets

Sesame Street creative director Brown Johnson talks to Fast Company about what’s next for “the gold standard of children’s programming.”

Quite a bit has changed since Sesame Street first aired in 1969. Between evolving cultural norms and shifting demographics, the show’s audience is different than it was back then. Meanwhile, the show itself has become populated with more and more puppets. Too many puppets, in fact.

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Despite the timeless popularity of characters like Elmo and Cookie Monster, Sesame Street’s team is planning on scaling back the variety of puppets in the next season, according to creative director Brown Johnson. In a session at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, Brown offered a glimpse at where the show is heading in the near future and how its creative process has evolved.

A central part of Johnson’s job is taking creative risks, she says. In a nod to Jim Henson, Maurice Sendak, and other members of the original team behind Sesame Street, Johnson says she and her colleagues are tasked with “having the apple cart and upsetting it but trying not to bruise any of the apples.”

“My job is to start taking some of those chances again. It’s both warm and wonderful and kind of terrifying.”

For starters, parents watching the show may notice fewer pop culture references in future episodes. That’s because, as humorous as they are to grownups, such references are typically lost on the preschoolers who watch the show. And as it turns out, fewer parents are watching Sesame Street these days, compared to when the show first aired. Back then, Johnson explains, 73% of mothers were home with their kids. More than four decades later, that number is closer to 30%. “It’s a different audience,” she says.

They’re also trimming the fat in terms of the number of characters on the show, focusing instead on crafting a smaller number of relatable, lovable characters and deepening their relationships with viewers. Instead of loading up on new characters, the next season of Sesame Street will highlight four main characters: Elmo, Abby, Cookie Monster, and Rosita. These characters, along with seasoned veterans like Big Bird and Grover, will help lead show into the future with the next season’s focus on teaching kindness to kids.

Sesame Street got so populated with so many puppets that we really wanted to concentrate on a fewer number of them,” says Johnson. Each of the four main characters embodies characteristics familiar to both parents and kids, such as Elmo with his occasional emotional outbursts or Rosalita’s affinity for giving hugs and reading.

“Cookie is obviously the poster child for delayed gratification,” explains Johnson. “He always has to figure out strategies to stop himself from eating the cookies.”

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One of the major themes of the upcoming season of Sesame Street is teaching kids to practice kindness. It may sound like a no-brainer for a children’s show, but it’s not always obvious how best to teach young children something as open-ended as being kind to one another. To help, Sesame Street recently hosted at their office a group of teachers from Chicago who specialize in teaching kindness to young children. Lunchtime guest speakers like these now regularly make appearances at the Sesame Street offices.

“The kinder part includes all of the executive function skills,” Johnson explains. “It’s not just about waiting in line, but coming up with creative solutions and working with others.”

Sesame Street may be focusing on fewer characters to help push its new kindness agenda, but that’s not to say that the team isn’t planning on introducing new characters down the line. As part of its on-air curriculum around autism awareness, Sesame Street is in the process of creating an autistic character.

The new puppet, which doesn’t yet have a debut date, is just the latest example of Sesame Street using its popular show to highlight issues that may otherwise not get much attention in children’s media.

“I think things bubble up in the consciousness of the world,” Johnson says, pointing out that the series had previously crafted a character who had a parent in the military and was constantly having to move and face change. “It felt like nobody in the media was putting a spotlight on autism.”

Autism won’t be the last issue tackled by Sesame Street’s creative team. For them, the process of evaluating important issues and working them into the show’s curriculum is an ongoing one. “Our social impact group has tentacles into research in so many different areas,” she says.

Related: Oscar The Grouch Was Orange?! The History Of “Sesame Street” In 3 Minutes

About the author

John Paul Titlow is a writer at Fast Company focused on music and technology, among other things.

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