On November 10, 1969, television viewers were introduced to “Sesame Street”. In the almost 50 years since, the series has become one of television’s most-watched and most iconic programs, and not just for kids. With 90 million graduates in the US alone, adults and parents love it too. And it has won more Emmys (159) than any other show in history.
The series began in 1969 as a revolutionary idea: use TV to help kids learn. At the time, an estimated 97% of American homes had a television set, and preschoolers were watching on average 27 hours of TV each week. Television producer Joan Ganz Cooney set out to create a show for kids that would “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them” – such as prepare them for school.
As one TV critic said at the time, “If kids can recite Budweiser jingles from TV, why not give them a program that would teach the ABCs?” There was a growing consensus that the programs created for kids were too violent, overly commercial, and often boring. Often, they recreated stories from books, with artwork from of book covers and photos of the pages inside. Children’s media experts Edward Palmer and Shalom M. Fisch added that the hosts were often “insufferably condescending” – with the sole noted exception of Captain Kangaroo who had “slower pace and idealism” than other shows at the time.
In its first year, the show reached only 67% of US TV homes, but earned a 3.3 Nielsen rating, with 7 million children watching every day. In November 1970, Big Bird made the cover of Time Magazine under the headline “Sesame Street: TV’s Gift to Children.”
By 1979, nine million American children six and under, were watching ”Sesame Street” daily, and several studies showed it was having a positive educational impact. Nevertheless, a few short years later in 1981, the US government withdrew funding. In the face of crisis, the creators turned to other sources of revenue, such as magazines, books, product licensing, and foreign income.
Time Magazine called Sesame Street “not only the best children’s show in TV history,” but “one of the best parents’ shows as well.” Cooney wanted to bring the value of education to more than the little kids. She wanted to reach beyond the preschoolers and offer something to their parents and older siblings, who often controlled what was on in the house. She insisted humor in the show be directed toward adults as well as kids.
Cooney wanted current events, cultural references, and guest celebrities, to encourage parents and older siblings to watch the show together with the preschoolers. Past appearances have included Robin Williams, Johnny Cash, James Earl Jones, Marisa Tomei, and hundreds more.
After some recent changes in the show’s reformatting, including host Murray the Monster Muppet with four different long segments, plus a remix of the Sunny Days theme song, the show has been on a ratings high this decade. The producers told the “Hollywood Reporter” that the show is maintaining its audience among two year olds, and showing double-digit increases among three and four year olds, up 21% and 32% over last season.
Despite the show’s continuing popularity, Sesame Street’s revenues still went south and viewership habits changed. In August 2015, Sesame Workshop announced that its first-run episodes would move to HBO, with the show remaining on PBS in some way. The deal also gave HBO exclusive rights to stream past and future episodes on HBO Go and HBO Now.
So, it looks like Sesame Street is here to stay, with millions of people of all ages discovering how to get, how to get to Sesame Street.