There was a time in the late 1980s when I believed that the generation of children born between the baby boomers and millennials should be called the Sesame Street Generation.
Gen X, as we ended up being tagged (thanks, Doug Coupland), had a special relationship with TV. As the children of families where increasingly both parents worked, it was our babysitter, our after-school playdate, our dinner companion.
Before Sesame Street, if TV was our friend, it was more Oscar the Grouch than Snuffleupagus. Just eight years before Sesame Street debuted (the golden anniversary of its first show is November 10), President Kennedy’s FCC chairman Newton Minow infamously called TV “a vast wasteland.” As Minow detailed in that speech, a day of TV meant “game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly, commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending.”
Sesame Street—with its fresh voice for speaking to, educating, and entertaining children—reflected the now-forgotten positive note in Minow’s speech: “When television is good, nothing—not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers—nothing is better.” For children and their parents, Sesame Street was the antidote to everything that concerned Minow.
The innovations Sesame Street represented in kids’ entertainment soon grew to be incorporated into The Electric Company, Zoom, and the 1972 album Free To Be You and Me and its subsequent TV special. All of them mixed multicultural casts, song, dance, sketches, and a contemporary aesthetic to deliver lessons both modern and timeless to children while not being grating to their parents.
Sesame Street and the subgenre it inspired were undeniably important in the early days of public broadcasting, giving PBS destination programming and an identity that clearly differentiated it from the traditional broadcast TV networks. They were also an oasis from the status quo: Network programming for children had become a host for such invasive advertising that in 1978 President Jimmy Carter’s Federal Trade Commission launched what became a controversial effort to rein in what it labeled KidVid.
It’s a curious historical footnote worth thinking about in late 2019 as kids’ entertainment has become the single-most important aspect of the global fight to dominate the future of entertainment.
Kids rule the stream
Content that appeals to children 12 and under is generally cheaper to produce and a more reliable source of engagement than any other programming. Good options for kids are considered to be essential to reduce churn (users canceling a service for reasons varying from lack of exciting new shows to price). One estimate from a year ago has kids watching almost 11 hours of streaming TV a week in 2018, up from less than six hours in 2016. Another suggests that 60% of Netflix subscribers are recurring viewers of kids’ programming.
No wonder, then, that all existing and emerging streaming competitors are amassing their own kids’ content to compete. Disney, as one might expect, has established its forthcoming Disney+ service, debuting November 12, as a family affair, taking advantage of its library of classics (and not-so-classics) and continuing to update them for contemporary audiences. In August, CBS All-Access announced that it would be adding 1,000 episodes of both old and new kids’ shows to its library as it seeks to be more competitive in the streaming wars.
Apple and HBO, meanwhile, have gone back to the future in a different way, making Sesame Workshop programming a key element of their respective strategies. Apple TV+ will have a reboot of the 1990s-era Ghostwriter and a new series called Helpsters, while HBO Max has the crown jewel itself, Sesame Street. HBO had helped save Sesame Street back in 2015 by paying for the rights to air new episodes first, and HBO Max made a new deal in early October to secure rights to the entire library of more than 4,500 Sesame Street episodes as well as new seasons and multiple spin-off series.
Amid all this ferment, Netflix’s kids’ programming has been its incubator for “branching narrative” storytelling and pioneering interactive TV in such programs as Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale.
With kids’ programming new and old playing such a central role in the business of entertainment, we’ve set out to identify several of the fronts to pay attention to as this battle heats up.
First up is the surprising tale of Sesame Workshop’s efforts to go beyond the seminal series at its core and extend those ideas and teaching methods to address pressing issues that can weigh on children. “How Sesame Workshop helps kids affected by the opioid crisis” tells the story of the latest effort of Sesame Street in Communities, its online library of videos, storybooks, and activities to help kids deal with trauma.
On Tuesday, October 29, we’ll explore Amazon FreeTime Unlimited and other kid-oriented “walled gardens” designed to be an antidote to the almighty YouTube and the potential dangers of the internet.
On Wednesday, October 30, we’ll go deep into the modern effort to create a billion-dollar global kids’ franchise, looking at how the folks behind the book-turned-Netflix series The Last Kids on Earth are going for the kind of multifaceted entertainment brand that has fueled every kids’ hit since Sesame Street.
On Thursday, October 31, we break down the art of writing kids’ shows that parents can enjoy as well and how the best practitioners in the business pull that off.
Finally, on Friday, November 1, we turn from online videos and TV series to feature films and the effort to broaden the storytelling themes in feature animation from the rather narrow ideas explored by the most popular films produced by Disney and Illumination.
Family entertainment has evolved in the half century since Sesame Street, but its winning formula has almost certainly influenced every maker and consumer of kids’ movies, TV shows, and videos today.
In that way, we’re all part of the Sesame Street Generation.