It would be hard to think of another modern institution that has touched as many children as Sesame Street. In Television-land, where shows have a shelf life as brief as that of a carton of eggs, this one is still going strong after a quarter-century. During that time it has been broadcast to more than 120 million children in 130 nations from Israel to Mozambique, making it—according to the Children's Television Workshop, the show's producer—"the largest single teacher of young children in the world." In the United States, Sesame Street's popularity is staggering; 77 percent of American preschool children from all areas, ethnic groups, and income levels watch the show once a week or more. In many locales they can take their pick of three or more broadcasts a day. "We're like the British empire," one of the show's creators quipped presciently during the first season. "Someday the sun will never set on Sesame Street."
Winner of 58 Emmys, two Peabody Awards, and four Parents' Choice Awards, subject of retrospectives at the Smithsonian Institution and the Museum of Modern Art, Sesame Street is as revered as it is popular. From its earliest years, when U.S. commissioner of education Sidney Marland proclaimed the show "among the supreme revelations of my 30 years in education," to recently, when John Wright of the University of Kansas's Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children recommended it as "part of a balanced breakfast," experts have pronounced the show "quality children's programming," a completely different breed from Mighty Morphing Power Rangers or Animaniacs. Through its role as teacher of young children, and because of its much vaunted racial and ethnic sensitivity, it often serves as the national symbol of compassion, as in the recent memorable performance of Bert and Ernie, directed by Representative Nita Lowey, at a congressional hearing over funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
So it comes as some surprise when you actually sit down to watch this marvel. Don't expect a show that, like a good book, inspires children's developing emotional or moral life, that engages their imaginations, that piques their curiosity about the world or enriches their experience of language. Sesame Street is an educational revelation, all right—the kind we've experienced so often recently in depressing reports about the declining verbal abilities of American students. If "television eats books," as novelist Larry Woiwode once wrote, Sesame Street is the Cookie Monster.
Sesame Street began with the loftiest of intentions. In 1967, Joan Ganz Cooney, a television producer hired by the Carnegie Corporation, developed an idea for a show "to promote the intellectual and cultural growth of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged preschoolers." Educational television was nothing new, but it was known for its drabness; with immobile cameras frozen in front of droning professorial types, it seemed an anachronism—the medium's "old maid," one wit called it. Cooney had the revolutionary idea of teaching through the jazzy techniques of commercial television: quick cuts, animation, humor.
In fact, the model for the show was not so much the typical television program as the television ad. "We knew that young children watched a great deal of television in the years before they went to school," Cooney wrote later. 'We knew also that they liked cartoons, game shows, situation comedies, . . . and above all, they were attracted by fast-paced, highly visual, oft-repeated commercials." Since kids like commercials, went the logic, give them commercials; only in this case "sell" them letters and numbers. Each hour would be "brought to you by" the letter H, say, or the number 9 instead of Sugar Pops or Frosted Flakes. It seemed brilliant in its obviousness.
But Sesame Street's relationship to commercial television didn't stop there; in truth, the show was devoured by the medium it set out to transform. Its enthrallment to the world of television and stardom is as fervid as that of the fans on Oscar night. Its shows are an encyclopedia of TV forms: minute-long soap operas with sappy organ music to teach the importance of trees, imitation MTV videos with a punk Muppet hostess to teach the letter N, game shows and their smarmy hosts, sitcoms, talk shows, TV award ceremonies—you name it. The Muppets spoof Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, Jaws, The Addams Family. Their musical numbers imitate Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, the Four Tops, the Beach Boys. On the rare occasions when superstars like Placido Domingo or Itzhak Perelman make guest appearances, kids might receive a sound bite of classical music. But any week's worth of viewing will ensure a comprehensive education in the history of rock and roll, from Elvis to Motown, from disco to rap. As I watched some Muppets imitating a rock-country group in long beards and trucker hats sing about the letter Z, my teenage daughter walked past and stared for a moment. "Hmm," she said, impressed. "ZZ Top."
From its inception, the Street has been a favorite destination for pop culture celebrities: Johnny Cash, Jamie Lee Curtis, Gloria Estefan, Paul Simon, Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, and dozens of other luminaries have all made appearances. Parents and elder siblings, the show's creators reasoned, would be more likely to watch along with the house preschooler if they could catch a glimpse of a favorite movie star.
But however well-intentioned, by worshiping at television's glowing altar, Sesame Street effectively ensures the conversion of the next generation to TV's beliefs and gods. When feminist groups denounced the all-male club of Bert, Ernie, Oscar, Elmo, and crew, the producers agreed to introduce Zoe, a girl who is "strong and has her own idea about things," in order to integrate the entrenched Muppet patriarchy. An unnecessary gesture: the show has girl role models aplenty—most of them devoted to demonstrating that C stands for celebrity. During one
recent hour, a Madonna Muppet sang achingly of being a girl living "in a cereal world" now that she has agreed to eat cereal, a Bette Midler Muppet belted out the wonders of the divine M, and Ethel Mermaid outdid them both with a celebration of fish. The Sesame Street gal may have her own ideas about some things, but like most Americans she wants to be a star.
The tone that suffuses these sequences—humor spiced with irony—is only a very distant cousin of the slapstick that the show's research indicated children enjoyed. Instead, that tone is the junior version of TV's prevailing Saturday Night Live or Roseanne scoffing mode. In one "Monsterpiece Theater" segment, for instance, Alistair Cookie (a.k.a. the Cookie Monster) introduces this week's "exciting tale of international intrigue and suspense starring the famous spy and extremely cool guy, James Bond," in "Doctor No." The James Bond Muppet seeks out a specialist, Doctor No, for a problem no one else seems able to cure: he can't read the word "no."
The sequence displays an exquisite attentiveness to each hilarious detail: James Bond, with luxuriant black hair, sleuths in sunglasses and a raincoat; behind Doctor No is an eye chart with the word "no" in letters of decreasing size; Alistair Cookie sports a silk ascot and a velvet jacket and sits on a wing chair surrounded by leather-bound books and silver-framed pictures of fellow Muppets. The humor may not mean much to thumb-sucking viewers more familiar with Jack Sprat than with James Bond, but sequences like these have their expensive impact and reinforce the easy fascination with the surfaces and rhythms of popular media. "Me love culture," Alistair Cookie mumbles through a mouthful of chocolate chips at the end of "Doctor No." Indeed.
This unwavering devotion to the tone and idiom of television powerfully homogenizes Sesame Street's celebrated diversity. Sure, the rainbow cast is inclusive, embracing a deaf woman using sign language and a child in a wheelchair. Yet the show couldn't be more monocultural and conformist in its unwavering endorsement of American anti-intellectualism and cult of the cool. This attitude is dramatized on a subliminal level in the person of the pointy-headed Bert, the only creature to bring an air of vague maladjustment to this manically upbeat show. With his stiff, robotic laugh and his paper-clip collection, Bert is the cautionary if lovable Muppet-nerd counterpart to his cool, imaginative friend Ernie.
Most of the time, however, the message of hipness is less subtle. It's not just James Bond who is "an extremely cool guy." Almost every hour contains some song explicitly flattering an idea of childhood beloved by Americans, one that suffuses commercial TV and movies and especially advertisements: the child as energetic, sophisticated hipster. "I go to school, school, school," rasps one Muppet rocker, shaking his shaggy locks; "I'm so cool, cool, cool." This seems a strange way to interest a young child in school; after all, part of the charm of three-year-olds, at least those lacking a Sesame Street education, is that they don't know the first thing about cool.
Sometimes Sesame Street even falls into the familiar television subtext that TV is fun and exciting, while the life of the mind is boring and stuffy. Teachers, professors, and scientists in cartoon segments invariably speak in dreary, pretentious accents, often putting their audiences to sleeplike Annie Eyeball Ph.D., who lectures stiffly on the virtues of breathing. What's striking is how entirely gratuitous these jabs are. To take only one example, in a recent nanosecond segment, a child stands in front of his class to tell about a case of hives. Look carefully, and you'll see two of his classmates snoring at their desks—a remarkable message indeed for preschool kids from the people bringing you your letters and numbers.
If these criticisms sound a little crabby—after all, who can resist the clever witticisms of sophisticated television?—consider that the pleasures of Sesame Street purportedly have never been for their own sake. The antics were only bait to catch unsuspecting viewers for the show's higher purpose: education. During the show's development, a group of eminent child experts formulated a curriculum according to the latest academic theories about children's cognition. They came up with a list of skills collected under categories like "symbolic representation" (letters, numbers, geometric shapes), "relational concepts" (up and down, near and far), and "perceptual discriminations" (identifying body parts).
Evidently the creators sensed that this skills-oriented vision of preschool education would not go over easily, for they simultaneously put another group of experts to work figuring out how to keep kids' eyes on the screen while they took their educational medicine. By using a "distracter" test—a slide show placed next to the television to determine at what moments fidgety viewers turned away from the TV screen—they discovered the power of visual pyrotechnics like fast-paced action, frequent cuts, and "pixilation" (a series of individual frames without connectors, so that characters move jerkily).
From the beginning, the show's creators were more entranced with their jazzy medium than with their message. And no wonder: they started out with the wrong message. The Sesame Street curriculum focuses on mere technical skills, the tools of mental cultivation rather than mental cultivation itself, the building blocks of thought rather than thought. Why anyone would want to read, what wider world literacy might unlock—on these questions of the purpose and value of the skills it teaches, Sesame Street is silent. Worse, the show's anti-intellectualism and its glorification of television culture over print send the implicit message that the skills of literacy have no meaningful purpose.
The show's technocratic educational curriculum, in other words, is inert and inconsequential.
Stripped of all the noise and color, the fun and the speed, the sophisticated design-school aesthetic and the unfailing wittiness, it is nothing more than a disjointed series of animated flash cards (about 40 per one-hour show), whose inherent blandness and triviality the producers spend millions trying to disguise. In one small fraction of one show, the three-year-old might be treated to a 30-second flash of the letter T, a 30second rap on littering, a 30-second Chinese design of the numbers one through eight, a one-minute skit by Muppets, on the number eight, a two-minute song on cooperation, a 30-second film clip of kids cooperating during a game, a one-minute rock-song animation of squares and triangles. Although the subject list has changed a bit over the years to include things like recycling and the increasingly fine points of self-esteem, the show's basic formula—breathing life into a bloodless curriculum through television glitz—has remained untouchable.
How bloodless? Take just one eloquent example: a Muppet holds up a picture of the Coliseum and pronounces it "a very old building that lots of people visit." Then she goes on to another tenuously related picture-completely missing the opportunity to kindle children's unfailing fascination with gladiators, perhaps even to tell the story of Androcles and the lion, and bring history to life.
But by now it should be clear that the creators of Sesame Street don't think much of children's curiosity. They inevitably strip the interest out of sequences concerned with subjects like animals or how things are made. The contrast between one Sesame Street segment and another by the hopelessly square Mister Rogers captures the extent to which Sesame Street relies on seductive distracters instead of finding the interest in inherently interesting subjects. Guy Smiley, the frenzied Muppet game-show host, introduces a sneaker for a "This Is Your Life!" episode. With wild audience cheers in the background, the sneaker sighs and weeps as he is shown his birth in the mind of a designer, his first owner, and his old age in an abstract sculpture. Mister Rogers, on the other hand, shows a quiet seven-minute film of a sneaker factory, describing the actual production process from the stamping out of the rubber soles, to the molding of the canvas, to the boxing of the final product. For the next few minutes, he talks about what the children have just seen. Without missing a beat, by contrast, the empty Sesame Street trifle dissolves into a glitzy 30-second "ad" for the letter G.
According to the show's enthusiasts, this jumble is all very educational. Children learn to recognize letters and numbers as well as concepts like heavy and light ("You know you're heavy, baby, and I'm light," rasps a macho rock star in one segment), and in this way, enthusiasts argue, the show promotes the child's "emerging literacy." But there are several reasons to greet these claims with only one hand clapping. As any kindergarten teacher can tell you, identifying the letter A is about as central to reading as defining shortstop is to playing baseball—necessary, but wildly insufficient. The skills required for reading are a complex mix of concentration, persistence, the linking of concepts, the mental recall of autonomous memories and images-the same skills that allow an older child to engage in analytic thinking. Sesame Street, by contrast, appeals to the most primal parts of the brain-its reflexive attraction to movement, light, and noise.
Still, as the sneaker episode demonstrates, the problem with Sesame Street's approach to teaching children goes even deeper. For all the imaginativeness of its frenetic rhythms and dazzling surfaces, the show's triviality—indeed, the unrelenting trivialization of its pop culture cool—does nothing to cultivate the deeper springs of children's imagination. What better way to develop children's emerging literacy and, one might add, hold their attention, than through stories of imaginative depth? As psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim cautioned, "The idea that learning to read may enable one later to enrich one's life is experienced as an empty promise when the stories the child listens to, or is reading at the moment f are vacuous." On Sesame Street, vacuity is at the heart of every tale.
To be sure, researchers found early on in the show's planning that children were not likely to sit still for an adult reading, say, "Rapunzel" on the small screen. But they most certainly will sit still through dramatized or illustrated legends, fairy tales, and fables, as in a recent Barney segment, in which a girl of about nine read a story about an Eskimo child as the camera paused on each of the book's magnificent illustrations. After she finished, she took a minute to recall three of the more unfamiliar words in the story. The sequence offered an obvious way to expand a child's vocabulary, discipline his memory, nourish his sense of beauty, and enlarge his imagination.
This approach-or a puppet show or a Disney-style animation-could be used to retell traditional fairy tales and legends, from "Little Red Riding Hood" to "John Henry" to Odysseus. These stories have always stirred children's imaginations with their wolves, giants, heroes, and
storms at sea. They also help the child master primal emotions, as Bettelheim memorably argued, while nurturing higher-order virtues like bravery, compassion, and loyalty. A child of three or four, after all, is not just a pleasure obsessed skill machine; he is a puzzled newcomer looking for meaning and order in a world he barely knows.
Such a search is rendered meaningless on Sesame Street. Take its version of "Cinderella." A story that dramatizes the sense of unappreciated isolation that is inevitably a part of even the most loved child's experience, a parable that punishes envy and rewards hope, cools into shallow parody. Kermit the Frog in the belted mackintosh and brimmed hat sported by reporters in 1940s movies interviews Cinderella's prince, a dandy primping in his midnight blue suit and admiring a glass slipper. Is he looking for the girl who stole his heart? No, he whines; he simply must own the other shoe.
A more telling example concerns Aesop's able "The Tortoise and the Hare." In the original the tortoise's victory over the cocky hare demonstrates the virtues of persistence and modesty. A recent version of the fable by Caroline Castle, recommended by the authors of Books That Build Character, shows that the tale can be modernized and still maintain meaning. This version portrays the tortoise as "a retiring scholar living in a book-lined room and writing a huge tome . . . at the rate of two pages a day" and the hare as a narcissistic "fitness freak."
But look how Sesame Street travesties the same material. A girl Muppet named Prairie watches a buffoonish reenactment of the fable, in which the winner receives a new washer and dryer, and the tortoise is a smart-mouthed grandma ("Look out, baby, this is a Harley shell!"). Even souped up, the story is still too square for a girl of Prairie's sophistication; "I know, I know," she mocks in eye-rolling exasperation; "Slow and steady win the race." The segment ends with the hare turning on Prairie, who accidentally got in her way and caused her to lose; "You owe me a washer, girlie!" As in "Cinderella," the story is entirely drained of its meaning, and the hero is turned into a vain comic spouting one-liners; indeed, this spoof turns meaning itself into a joke.
Given all this glibness, it might seem encouraging to hear that this past season the producers began a "Let's Read and Write Campaign" after consulting with child experts about "what's new, what's important" in the field of early childhood education-perhaps implicitly acknowledging their failure on these grounds hitherto. Alas, the campaign only underscores the producers' dedication to television's flip style over resonant substance. How do they go about teaching children that recent scientific discovery, "the wonder of books"? Why, according to the Children's Television Workshop's promotional literature, by bringing on celebrities like Lily Tomlin and the rap group Arrested Development, by parodies of books like "Donna Quixote," and by MTV-style videos, like the one in which the Muppet group "the Alphabeats" rock and roll in the library. In this way, the Sesame Street tot is educated not in literacy but in television—its grammar, its rhythms, its stars, and, most subtly of all, its cool posture of the contemporary ironist too superior for curiosity, enchantment, or ideals. While this stance has become popular for school-aged children in TV shows like The Simpsons, it is Sesame Street's proud legacy to introduce it to kids still clutching their blankies and teddy bears.
The story of how Americans came to endow a show so completely wedded to the culture of television with deep educational significance is not an especially uplifting one. For the triumph of Sesame Street has less to do with quality than with a combination of savvy timing, sophisticated image making, and vigorous promotion.
Sesame Street was born in the heated political atmosphere of the 1960s. Urban riots and early civil rights legislation had kindled a feeling of urgency about poor children's lagging school achievement. These concerns coalesced with child experts' growing belief that the cognitive abilities of all young children had been underestimated and underserved. Whereas previously early childhood was considered a dreamy period of mommy-love, play, and wonder—what one expert called "the magic years"—and the phrase "early childhood education" was almost unknown, now experts in cognitive development declared children avid, capable learners. In fact, stated Benjamin Bloom in Stability and Change in Human Characteristics, half of all learning was actually completed by age four.
Grammar school was too late to start repairing the deficits of childhood disadvantage. Early childhood programs aimed at the poor—Head Start, most notably—suddenly seemed the best route to improving inner-city children's academic chances and breaking the cycle of poverty. Although designed to appeal to all children, Sesame Street was also envisioned as an anti-poverty television program.
Sesame Street's time had come for two other reasons. First, American mothers, about to begin their double shift in the kitchen and at the office, would hardly be able to resist the most mesmerizing babysitter since Mary Poppins. And second, since preschool kids were already watching TV an average of 30 hours a week, why not turn that habit to advantage? The miserable state of commercial television had become a commonplace—a "vast wasteland," as FCC chairman Newton Minow famously put it in 1961. But even though, from The Three Stooges to Flipper, the pickings were slim, there were intriguing reports of children learning to read from observing letters on commercials, quiz shows, and weather reports.
Alert to all of these trends was Joan Ganz Cooney, the woman whom Carnegie Corporation president Lloyd Morrisett had hired to explore the potential of television for teaching children. Well-connected and, in the words of former NET chairman John White, charming enough "to sell tea to the Chinese," Cooney had produced a documentary about a Harlem preschool and had won an Emmy for another educational television effort, "Poverty, Anti-Poverty, and the Poor." And her impressive credentials went beyond public television: she had also done a stint as a publicist at NBC.
Cooney brought to Sesame Street her shrewd grasp of the lessons of this still young and developing medium-its techniques both of production and of marketing. It was her idea not only to marry the two genres of commercial and educational television, but also to bring that combination of glamour and sentiment that is the trademark of American show business to a lowly kids' show. She was intent on involving celebrities in Sesame Street. She molded the show's up-to-date aesthetic, which instantly made older educational models like Romper Room seem dowdy hand-me-downs. She shrewdly hired Jim Henson, whose Muppets—which had successfully advertised La Choy Chow Mein and Ivory Snow, among other products—remain Sesame Street's prime marketing symbol.
Knowing the importance of appealing to parents' pride in little Johnny's precocity, she supervised the transformation of the show from the arts and crafts projects and singing and clapping games outlined in her original feasibility study to the jazzed-up letter-and-number flash cards. According to Gerald Lesser in Children and Television: Lessons from Sesame Street, this approach assured that kids could "feel good about knowing" something and gain "an important displayable skill" that parents could feel good about, too.
With her publicist's eye, Cooney also intuited the advantage of a sentimental aura of un-self-interested benevolence for the whole project. Early on in the show's planning, she and Morrisett had unsuccessfully sought support from commercial networks. Rejection turned out to be a godsend. The show became, thanks to their marketing skill, Educational Television for the Good of Children, Particularly Poor Children, and the ironies of its love relationship with the television ad could be ignored. If this was entertainment, it was entertainment with an exalted mission, uncontaminated—or so it seemed—by profit motives and ratings lust.
In this and other ways, Sesame Street developed an image irresistible to the baby-boomer parents whose children were to form much of the show's audience. The host of the other educational offering at the time, Mister Rogers, cardigan-clad and as square as a small-town minister, reminded them of dowdy Middle America, of their own Eisenhower childhoods. But Sesame Street? Sesame Street was hip, urban—the creators believed they were taking a risk when they decided on a city street instead of the familiar picket-fence back-drop—and enlightened, as evidenced by it's multiracial cast and its noncommercial broadcast home. The high-minded, public service image in turn provided the show with a Teflon coating to which no criticisms—though they have trickled in steadily over the years—could stick.
From the outset, the show was a hit, thanks in part to a promotional blitz orchestrated by the Carl Byoir agency and acknowledged by Sesame Street staffers to be "as extensive as had ever been attempted for any television project." In the first season alone, up to 36 percent of all children became regular viewers. Within two years, Children's Television Workshop, originally a subsidiary of NET, became a separate nonprofit corporation. The workshop now boasts an income from product licensing, international television, and publishing of almost $120 million a year, a 1994 operations reserve fund of $34 million, and an endowment of $71 million. (Sesame Street costs about $20 million to produce annually.) CTW recently sold the rights for Sesame Street-related video and audio tapes to Sony for an undisclosed amount and reportedly is looking for backers for a cable channel.
Many argue that Sesame Street's success is a tribute to its scientifically proven educational benefits rather than image making and publicity. But the CTW promotional machine has also effectively managed the vast amount of research on the show—a 1990 bibliography boasts more than 1,000 entries. While negative studies gather dust in academic journals, their positive counterparts, often commissioned by the workshop, are faxed to a sympathetic, deadline-harried press and duly, sometimes literally, repeated. Yet many of those positive studies leave one with the feeling that experts ought to be spending more time with children actually watching the show. One especially egregious example claims the show offers a good means of encouraging vocabulary development because "the dialogue on Sesame Street closely resembles that of a mother talking to her child." Like what? "You know you're heavy, baby, and I'm light"?
Given closer scrutiny, two of the studies that CTW most frequently touts similarly hint at advocacy masquerading as social science. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), hired by the workshop early on and present at some initial planning sessions, supposedly demonstrated significant gains among viewers in a number of basic skills such as counting and naming letters and numbers. But a later Russell Sage Foundation review of the ETS data, under the direction of Northwestern University psychologist Thomas Cook, threw cold water on these results. Cook and his colleagues found very modest effects from the show, and even these gains they attributed to "encouragement to view"—the phone calls, promotional material, and weekly visits from ETS researchers to ensure an experimental group of regular viewers. Furthermore, they argued, whatever small value the show did have actually increased the intellectual gap between middle-class and poor children, exactly the opposite of the ETS findings.
The most recent research, published this spring by Aletha C. Huston and John C. Wright of the Center for Research on the Influences of Television on Children, hardly even attempts to disguise its bias. Although they had not completed "in-depth analyses" of their data, the authors write, "there were practical, sentimental, academic, political, and personal reasons to complete the first report" of their findings in time for Sesame Street's 25th anniversary. In fact, Huston and Wright, long-time advocates of educational television for children and previous CTW consultants, are "pleased" that their preliminary report can make the greatest claims yet for the show. Unlike most positive findings so far, which have merely asserted a correlation between watching Sesame Street and emerging literacy, Huston and Wright went so far as to state that watching the show "appears to play a positive causal role in [children's] development of readiness for school."
But if it's the show that causes school readiness, how does one explain that kids who watch Sesame Street frequently also spend more time looking at books, at "art, music, paper and pencil games, . . . cultural events," as Huston and Wright also note? Somebody who cares about the children's future is taking them to the circus, buying them art supplies, and turning PBS on at the appropriate time—and it's not Big Bird. Oddly, in a 1991 article, one not commissioned by CTW, these same authors seem to have understood that kids who watch educational TV come from different sorts of homes than kids watching Animaniacs; they "have parents who also provide them with stimulating toys and activities, and who are attentive and affectionate to them. Children who frequently watch cartoons and other pure entertainment programs come from homes with lower levels of stimulation and affection."
The sum total of the positive studies of Sesame Street ends up a puzzlement. To show Sesame Street's broad reach, CTW touts a Westat survey suggesting at 77 percent of all American preschoolers, including 87 percent of black children and 79 percent of Hispanic, watch the show once a week or more. To prove its educational benefits, the workshop hypes other studies that purportedly show its viewers to be more cooperative, more school-ready, and more likely to demonstrate signs of emerging literacy. But if 77 percent of American children are regularly watching a show so miraculously beneficial, why do kindergarten teachers, according to Ready to Learn, a report put out by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1991, find their students increasingly deficient in language skills?
Though CTW is now embarking on a study to prove Sesame Street's impact as late as high school, the truth is obvious to anyone who can forget about statistical correlations and control groups for a minute: no single television show will ever turn children into literate students. Yet the myth that Sesame Street does just that has helped propel CTW into not just critical but commercial success.
And what a rich irony that is: the very image of Sesame Street as a non-commercial educational alternative to the flimflam of advertisers and network television has helped CTW make a fortune selling merchandise to children. "A for-profit company would have killed the golden goose," Cooney told Working Woman magazine in 1986. CTW has licensed over 5,000 products, including close to 400 in 1994 alone: Sesame Street books, bubble bath, clocks, lunch boxes, tapes, toys, videos, Chef Boy-Ar-Dee Sesame Street pasta ("formulated to meet the nutritional needs of preschoolers"), and the Sesame Street Silly Sentence Maker ("helps kids say really goofy things but in a grammatically correct fashion").
Kids can now shop in Sesame Street General Stores, where they can buy an "outstanding array of quality products that demonstrate and are compatible with Sesame Street's teaching goals"—items like the "Streetwise" line of underwear and jammies, sheets and blankets, necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.
This commercialization might seem inconsequential if the show truly were "quality programming" in the public interest. It is not. While it teaches the alphabet and supposedly prepares children for school, it actually instructs them in the conventions of an anti-intellectual pop culture and thus makes common cause with the vast contemporary forces arrayed against literacy. While it asserts its purity from commercial taint, it wields the most sophisticated marketing strategies to sell its products to keep the show in business. Like the television commercial on which it is modeled, Sesame Street is a triumph of appearance over substance.