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Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street
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Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street

The television show Sesame Street, first broadcast in the United States by the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) in 1969, represented a new departure in educational programming for children. One of the core principles of "the enterprise," according to Joan Ganz Cooney, the inspirational woman at the centre of the project, was that the program be a collaboration of "professional researchers" and "experienced television producers" (xv). The approach was unprecedented at the time and initially resisted as unworkable by the producers, but Cooney and the team she assembled insisted that material be developed in consultation with scholars, educators, and educational psychologists; "that material, as it was produced, be tested on the target audience for both appeal and educational value"; and "that producers modify or discard material based on these almost continuous reports from the field" (xvi). At the same time, however, Cooney and Gerald S. Lesser, the educational psychologist from Harvard Graduate School of Education recruited by Cooney to design the "curriculum" for the show, began from the premise that "the goals were going to be tailored to television and not the classroom" (xvii).

One of the implications of this attention to the medium of the message was that CTW borrowed formats that had already proven to be successful on commercial television. For example, the choice of a magazine format, consisting of "a series of largely unrelated segments" rather than a "continuous episode-length plot" (Morrow 87), was based in part on the reasoning that it would be simpler and cheaper to replace a segment that did not work with the target audience than to discard an entire program. Cooney's directive that the show be "'hip and fast and funny'" [End Page 1] was the result of her recognition of the popularity of the style associated with the NBC comedy variety show Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In (Morrow 87). And, when the open call for proposals for segments dedicated to letters of the alphabet brought in the storyboard for "The Story of J," a narrative that "sold" the usefulness of that letter, producers were struck by the educational potential of the "'Madison Avenue' techniques" repurposed for the segment (Kaiserman 334). As Robert W. Morrow reports, when CTW researchers tested "the J commercial" with children, in keeping with their model of formative research, they discovered that cartoons were good teachers of letters and numbers, that commercial interruptions "attract children's attention to the TV rather than degrade it," and that four-year-olds "'can endure enormous amounts of repetition'" (89), outcomes that encouraged producers to request more such letter commercials. Adam Kaiserman observes of this incident that, "[r]ather than fight the most debased of all television genres, Sesame Street would turn the form into its most valuable pedagogical tool" (334), replacing the "Buy! Buy! Buy!" mantra of commercial television with its own mantra, "Learn! Learn! Learn!" (335).

The repetition and redundancy characteristic of many forms of TV storytelling are the outcome of the "commercial imperative" of network television to "deliver the largest and most desirable audience to the network's clients," according to television scholar Michael Z. Newman (17). In the case of Sesame Street, producers mapped out elaborate plans for the optimal pattern of repetitions needed to secure the uptake of their messages: there were exact repetitions of program segments, program segments that were repetitions with variations from previous segments, and repetitions of familiar formats with variations in content. Each of these kinds of repetitions occurred within a single program, over a week of programs, during a twelve-week series, across a season, and over a number of seasons (Palmer and Fisch 12). Summative research used to evaluate the effectiveness of the show after the first two seasons revealed that these strategies of repetition and redundancy were highly successful: Sesame Street viewing was "positively associated" with school readiness in preschoolers and correlated with reading competence in primary school years (Mielke 90-91), results that have been confirmed in many subsequent studies. Anecdotal evidence from teachers also testified to the effectiveness of the techniques of the show: as Sesame Street became popular and then ubiquitous on North American...