On 'Sesame Street,' the air's been sweet for 35 years

Family Matters

March 28, 2004|By Susan Reimer

I AM AT AN AGE when birthdays are not cause for celebration, but this one certainly is: Sesame Street is 35 years old.

The children's television program that changed that genre for the good -- and forever -- will launch its 35th season with a prime-time special starring Elmo, the world's favorite toddler.

Sesame Street Presents: The Street We Live On will be broadcast on public television stations at 8 p.m. next Sunday.

That's bedtime for many of Elmo's most faithful fans. But the good news is, the show will be broadcast Monday morning at Sesame Street's regular time as the first episode of the new season.

During the show, Elmo will learn more about the street he lives on with flashbacks to events that occurred before he was born.

We will see the dear, departed Mr. Hooper again, revisit Maria and Luis' wedding and the birth of Gabi, and Gordon and Susan's adoption of Miles.

The show, and the season, will be punctuated with the famous and the near famous reminiscing about their favorite Sesame Street moments.

There will be a couple of new regular features, too, designed to lure parents to the couch next to their toddlers: "Dr. Feel" will talk about emotions in a delightful parody of Dr. Phil. And there is "Joe Hundred Guy" (from Joe Millionaire), who counts to 100 by 10's.

Sesame Street is the reason that millions of mothers of toddlers got a shower in the morning. But it is also the reason so many more children are letter and number literate when they enter school.

That was the vision of Joan Ganz Cooney, who hoped that television could bridge the growing gap between children of different economic circumstances and get underprivileged children ready for school.

That was in 1969. The world is a much more complex place now. And researchers know more about how children learn. Sesame Street has changed with the times.

Now, the show tries to teach children about the world and their place in it.

Segments like "Global Grover" teach about different cultures, and parallel productions on television in places like Israel and Palestine try to teach children to tolerate these differences.

When Sesame Street began, it was thought that the target audience, 3- to 5-year-olds, couldn't sit still for segments longer than a minute or two.

Not only has research found that not to be the case, the choppy lineup so many of us remember was discovered to actually irritate the little viewers.

It is now clear that even Sesame Street's new core audience, 2- to 4-year-olds, can follow a video story from beginning to end. So there are fewer "commercial breaks" to introduce numbers, letters or other bits.

And, as art and music suffer under the budget-cutter's knife in many schools, Sesame Street has added more.

Ironically, Sesame Street has suffered for its success. It began a new era in children's programming, including Barney, Teletubbies and Blue's Clues, and those shows now now compete for its audience.

And Sesame Street is also criticized for making television junkies out of our youngest children, forging a habit that too many never break.

The co-viewing that the creators hoped for never occurred, either. Parents like me always liked the show, and especially the little inside jokes for grown-ups and the grown-up stars. But most of us used the Sesame Street hour to grab a shower or run the vacuum. We didn't sit down with our toddlers and practice the number of the day.

And finally, Cooney's dream of leveling the playing field for poor children has not come true. It seems that all children, regardless of their circumstances in life, have benefited.

The good news is, a 2001 study found that the impact of Sesame Street extends far beyond knowing your numbers and letters on the first day of school.

The study reported that adolescents who regularly watched Sesame Street as toddlers had higher grades, were motivated to study math and science, were reading more, felt lower levels of aggression and, overall, felt more competent than adolescents who rarely watched as preschoolers.

That's the good news. The bad news is, Sesame Street is 35 years older, and that means we are too.

That's hard to believe. But when you see Bob and Luis today, and then in the flashbacks to earlier episodes featured in next Sunday's special, you realize that time has indeed flown by like a big bird.

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