After preview, 'Sesame Street' cancels a show on divorce

March 05, 1992|By Murray Dubin | Murray Dubin,Knight-Ridder News Service

Divorce was painful for the Snuffelupagus family.

Too painful, apparently, for children to watch.

Plans for "Sesame Street's" first show on divorce were canceled after 60 preschool-age critics previewed the program several weeks ago and misunderstood it.

In the show's 23 years, Big Bird, Bert and Ernie and the Count have seen their street of letters, numbers and songs visited by death, adoption, marriage and birth. But introducing divorce proved unexpectedly difficult. Rather than ease children's fears, the segment frightened them.

"Divorce is an extremely anxiety-provoking subject for a 4-year-old," said executive producer Dulcy Singer.

All segments are researched and tested with child experts. But rarely does "Sesame Street" pre-screen with children. The segment had been scheduled for April 10, but day-care children in New York and New Jersey "misunderstood" much of the show's message, Ms. Singer said.

"We were really nervous about the show, and we didn't think it was a shoo-in," Ms. Singer said. "When you're dealing with something like death, the approach can be universal. But with divorce, it's so personal. People react differently."

The parents of Snuffy and Alice, two elephant-like Muppets with the prodigious surname of Snuffelupagus, were to be the divorced couple.

The first script was written by head writer Norman Stiles. After reading it, the advisory board of child psychologists and psychiatrists recommended that it be more specific -- that it more clearly state, for example, that an argument between parents does not mean divorce, said Ms. Singer. And so it was rewritten.

The script has Gordon (a man, not a Muppet) allay the fears of Snuffy's friends, Telly, Elmo and Big Bird, by saying:

"Hey, calm down! Just because parents have an argument, or get upset with each other, doesn't mean they're getting a divorce . . . or that they don't love each other anymore."

And Gordon makes it clear that it is not Alice or Snuffy's fault that their parents are getting divorced, that children never cause a divorce, "No, not even if you spill something."

In the program, Alice, who is about 2, pounds and kicks her teddy bear as she listens to her parents arguing in the next cave.

"The kids came away with negative messages," Ms. Singer said. "The kids said she stabbed the teddy bear with a knife. The kids misunderstood arguments. They said arguments did mean divorce. Some thought Snuffy's parents were moving away even though we said just the opposite. A number said the parents would no longer be in love with them."

Ms. Singer said there was a fear all along that the program would "frighten children. Negative messages tend to be more dramatic, and words tend to be less dramatic. The kids glommed onto the action."

After the testing, research director Valeria Lovelace "came in with a long face and said, 'Back to the drawing boards. It didn't work,' " said Ms. Singer.

"I don't look at this as a defeat," she added. "We'll work on it some more.

"Maybe, we'll go into it in a more closed way and not go into the reasons for the divorce. Or maybe we'll just make it a fact of life and just say Snuffy's parents are divorced."

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