Sunny day, sweepin' the clouds away.…" For more than thirty years, children around the world have known that these words, sung to a bouncy beat, mean just one thing: another episode of Sesame Street is about to begin. The show started as an experiment in using television to educate preschoolers. From there, it went on to become one of the most influential and highly praised television shows ever. Sesame Street has won more than seventy Emmys, television's highest award. It has also been honored by the Smithsonian Museum of American History and New York's Museum of Modern Art.
The success of Sesame Street fueled the growth of the nonprofit organization that produced it, the Children's Television Workshop (CTW). In addition to creating educational television programs, CTW began to publish books and magazines. It also licensed its most popular characters, a diverse group of puppets called Muppets, to various corporations. This means that CTW charged a fee that allowed companies to use such characters as Bert, Ernie, and Big Bird on all sorts of products, including food, toys, and clothing.
In 2000, CTW changed its name to Sesame Workshop. On the company Web site, president and chief executive officer (CEO) Gary E. Knell said the new name captured "the essence of who we are and where we're headed in an increasingly complex media environment." The new name showed that Sesame Street was a very important part of the company. At the same time, it suggested that CTW had become more than just a television production company.
Exploring the Power of Television
The origins of Sesame Street and CTW go back to a dinner party hosted by Joan Ganz Cooney early in 1966. Cooney was a producer of documentaries for WNDT, the educational network in New York City. Her guests that night included Lloyd Morrisett, vice president of the Carnegie Corporation, a foundation started by steel manufacturer Andrew Carnegie (see United States Steel entry) in 1911 to promote education. Morrisett and Cooney discussed the potential of television to educate young children.
At the time, the Carnegie Corporation was particularly interested in preschool education. Morrisett asked Cooney to research what kind of television program could effectively teach preschoolers, and how she would develop the show if she had unlimited funds. The report Cooney finished in November 1966 held the blueprint for what became Sesame Street. Cooney believed television would be especially useful for teaching young children who came from poor families. Studies showed these children already watched a lot of TV, and their parents usually lacked the money to send them to preschool.
Sesame Workshop at a Glance
- Employees: Not available
- CEO: Gary E. Knell
- Major Competitors: Nick Jr.
- Notable Shows and Products: Television shows: Sesame Street, Dragon Tales, Sagwa, Ghost Writer, Noggin television network; Sesame Place theme park; Sesame Street Live
Cooney's report led to the founding of the Children's Television Workshop. With $8 million from the Carnegie Corporation, other foundations, and the U.S. government, CTW formed a partnership with National Educational Television (NET), a public organization. Cooney wanted Sesame Street to help young viewers learn to recognize the letters of the alphabet and the numbers from one through ten. Children would also develop their vocabulary and learn basic reasoning skills. To keep children interested, Sesame Street would use music, skits, and a group of puppets created by Jim Henson. The show had a fast pace, copying one of the most popular adult television programs of the era, Rowan and Martin's Laugh In.
- Joan Canz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Corporation discuss using television to educate preschoolers.
- Children's Television Workshop (CTW) broadcasts the first episode of Sesame Street.
- Sesame Street wins Emmy Awards for Outstanding New Series and Outstanding Achievement in Children's Programming.
- Electric Company becomes the second CTW educational program.
- CTW introduces a science program, 3-2-1 Contact.
- Cooney steps down as head of CTW.
- Debut of Ghostwriter, a show that stresses reading and writing skills.
- CTW launches its first advertising campaign on commercial television.
- Nickelodeon and CTW begin a new children's cable network, Noggin.
- CTW changes its name to Sesame Workshop.
Success and Growth
After testing Sesame Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and at several New York day-care centers, CTW broadcast the show nationally on November 10, 1969. The press quickly praised the show as a revolution in children's television. Richard M. Polsky, in his book Getting to Sesame Street, quotes Time magazine's reaction to the program: "It is not only the best children's show in TV history, it is one of the best parents' shows as well." Ratings indicated that about half of America's twelve million preschoolers watched the show, and tests indicated they were learning what Cooney and her staff hoped they would. The benefits were apparent regardless of where the children lived or their economic background.
After Sesame Street's first season, CTW ended its relationship with NET and became a completely independent nonprofit organization. (A nonprofit organization is not a business because it is not formed to make money; it does not exist to make a profit.) Because its first show was so successful, CTW added a second program in 1971 called The Electric Company. The show was geared to older children and tried to reinforce reading skills. Featuring such well-known entertainers as Rita Moreno (1931-), Bill Cosby (1937-), and Morgan Freeman (1937-), the The Electric Company ran for ten seasons, then appeared in reruns.
Producing two shows was expensive, and CTW had trouble guaranteeing funds from foundations and the U.S. government. The workshop slowly expanded into books, puzzles, and games, then began licensing its characters to companies. By 1984, the licensing of Sesame Street characters generated $200 million in sales for wholesalers, with CTW receiving 7 percent in return. By then Sesame Street products also included educational software for home computers.
When the Children's Television Workshop first tested its new show, it didn't have a name. Finally, one writer suggested Sesame Street, which referred to a story from folktales known as the Arabian Nights. A character says "Open, sesame," and a doorway magically appears in a rock wall. Sesame Street was supposed to lead children to adventures in learning.
In 1984, CTW had total revenues of $54 million. Even with that income, however, the company struggled to fund its television programs, which had grown to include the science show 3-2-1 Contact. To generate more money, CTW began developing shows for commercial television networks and released its first movie, Follow That Bird, featuring Big Bird. (Other Muppets had already appeared in several movies, but without CTW taking part.) In a November 1984 interview with Forbes, Cooney criticized the spotty government support for CTW: "We should not be going down to the Congress begging for money … they should be coming to us and saying, 'What can you do?'"
As CTW grew, it continued to improve Sesame Street by changing its format when necessary and adding new educational messages. The show began placing more emphasis on helping kids deal with different social situations and increased its efforts to promote racial diversity. The program also began spending more time on such subject areas as geography and the environment. The success of Sesame Street forced changes in America's classrooms. As millions of students reached preschool and kindergarten already knowing letters and numbers, teachers had to teach more advanced skills.
In 1990, Cooney stepped down as president and chief executive officer of CTW, and was replaced by David Van Buren Britt. Under Britt, CTW added a new show in 1992, Ghostwriter, designed to help older kids develop writing skills. Britt told U.S. News & World Report that students "hit a wall" in fourth grade as they tried to shift from learning how to read to reading to learn new information. Ghostwriter was designed to ease that shift.
Four years later, CTW introduced Big Bag, its first new show for preschoolers since Sesame Street. The program was a joint effort with the Cartoon Network. CTW was also relying on its five magazines, including Sesame Street Magazine and Kid City. Other Sesame Street ventures included Sesame Place, a theme park in eastern Pennsylvania, and Sesame Street Live, a touring show featuring the Muppets on stage.
Should the Government Pay?
Although no one doubted that the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) did good work with its shows, the company still had critics. By the mid 1990s, some political writers and politicians believed government funding should be cut or eliminated for Sesame Street and other children's shows aired on public television. At the very least, critics said, CTW could give some of the money it earned from licensing back to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the government agency that helps fund public television.
In 1996, CTW earned $20 million in licensing fees. At the same time, it received several million dollars from the U.S. government to produce Sesame Street. One critic of this arrangement was Lawrence Jarvik, author of the 1996 book PBS: Behind the Screen. Jarvik called Sesame Street, "an infomercial for the 5,000-plus licensed Sesame Street products." With all the money from licensing and other sources of revenue, Jarvik and others insisted the government should not help out CTW. In response, CTW pointed out that it spends far more money to produce Sesame Street and its other programs than it ever makes.
Changes in Television and at CTW
Entering the late 1990s, CTW faced growing competition for young TV viewers. The cable network Nickelodeon was a particular concern. Its "Nick Jr." programming targeted the same preschoolers who watched Sesame Street. In 1997, for the first time ever, CTW advertised on radio and television. The ads were aimed at young mothers who probably watched Sesame Street when they were children. CTW also launched a new brand of licensed products, called Sesame Street Baby. The items were designed for newborns and toddlers. CTW hoped that parents and grandparents who trusted the Sesame Street name would buy these goods. In 1998, a CTW executive told Playthings, "Our research shows that to many parents the Sesame Street brand name is like a seal of approval."
As the turn of the century approached, other changes followed. In 1999, CTW teamed with Nickelodeon to launch a new twenty-four-hour children's television network, Noggin. The channel featured old CTW shows and existing Nickelodeon productions. Noggin later added new CTW programming. At almost the same time, CTW introduced a new, expanded Web site geared to preschoolers and their parents. The site offered games and links to CTW shows. New programs included Dragon Tales, a cartoon that used fantasy to teach kids social skills, and Sagwa, a cartoon featuring a Chinese Siamese cat.
CTW's growing range of products led to its new name: Sesame Workshop. Sesame Street changed as well. In 2002, as the show began its thirty-third season, Sesame Workshop decided to focus on an even younger audience, primarily two-year-olds. Stories were told in one segment, rather than being split up over the course of the show. The producers also decided to add more Spanish words to the show, and considered adding other languages in the future. Indeed, Sesame Street is not just an American phenomenon. By 2002, the show has been seen in more than 140 countries, and in some cases, CTW worked with local companies to produce shows in the local languages. Peggy Charren, an expert in children's television, told the Associated Press she looked forward to the new look. "I've never seen Sesame Street get worse through changes," she said.