Monday, November 09, 2009

Sesame Street Remembered

Forty years ago – if someone would have told you that a television show featuring a big yellow bird, a Cookie Monster, a couple of guys named Bert and Ernie and a vampire that would teach kids to count would revolutionize children’s television – you’d probably think they were nuts. Well, kids – it was forty years ago that a little show from the Children’s Television Workshop called “Sesame Street” premiered on public television stations across America and it turned kids TV on its head and changed children’s television forever.

Forty years ago – most television stations popped on “Popeye”, “Bugs Bunny” and “Beany And Cecil” cartoons or dusted off the “Our Gang” or “Three Stooges” film shorts from the 30s and 40s and they called that “children’s television. The cartoons and films shorts were money makers for the TV stations and there was really no thought behind the programming that they were airing for children. TV stations figured that they were entertaining kids and the shows were attractive to the advertisers that wanted to sell them sugared cereals, candy bars and soda pop and that’s all that mattered to them.

Then there was “Sesame Street” – a children’s program that was unlike any other at the time. The people at the Children’s Television Workshop figured out a way to do a television program that not only entertained young minds – but educated them as well. While the commercial television stations aired old cartoons sponsored by toy companies tied to the programming that they were airing – “Sesame Street” was sponsored by the letters A, G, and P and the number 3. A children’s television show sponsored by letters of the alphabet and numbers – now that’s crazy – crazy like a fox.

By combining the talent of Jim Henson’s Muppets and children educators from around the country – the Children’s Television Workshop created a program that not only entertained children – adults like it as well and parents discovered that TV could be more than a babysitter -- it could be a tool in the education of their children.

When “Sesame Street” premiered forty years ago – my hometown of Flint, Michigan didn’t have a public television station at the time. There were public TV stations in Lansing, Detroit and at Delta College – but they were on the UHF band which wasn’t that easy to tune it and cable television had yet to really make any inroads – so, the only thing that we knew about “Sesame Street” was what we were reading about the show in the newspapers or weekly newsmagazines.

I was in 10th grade at the time when “Sesame Street” debuted on public television and I can remember stopping in to a friend’s house after school one day to watch “Sesame Street” for the first time. My friend had a antenna on his house with a rotor and he could pick up the signal of the Detroit public television station that was airing the show. Here I was a 10th grader in front of a television set watching show where a puppet monster ate cookies, another puppet lived in a garbage can, and another puppet sang a song about his “rubber ducky” and I’ll be damn if I wasn’t entertained by it all – but when will the rest of my hometown be able to see this show.

Because of the popularity of “Sesame Street” – a commercial television station (WJRT TV 12) did something unusual for a commercial television station at the time – they worked out an agreement with public television and the Children’s Television Workshop to air “Sesame Street” on a commercial broadcast station with no commercial interruption. “Sesame Street” continued to be sponsored by the letters of the alphabet and numbers – but TV 12 wasn’t allowed to sneak in any commercials for any hamburger chains or even promote their own “Bozo” show that aired later in the day. Imagine a commercial television today giving up five hours a week of air time to air a children’s television show from public television – it ain’t gonna happen – but things were a lot different forty years ago.

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