Examining Sesame Street's impact after 40 years

Friday, November 13, 2009 | 9:11 a.m. CST; updated 11:23 a.m. CST, Friday, November 13, 2009

Stuart Loory, Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies, Missouri School of Journalism: The television program Sesame Street celebrated its 40th anniversary this week. It started as a preschool children’s program featuring huge puppets living in a rundown section of Brooklyn, New York. It has now been syndicated to some 140 countries throughout the world, where it has taken on new characters and subjects. That raises the matter of the export of American culture to the rest of the world and how it is received. The Walt Disney Company just got approval from China to open a huge new theme park in Shanghai. Does that mean that American movies, television programs and pop music will also begin to flood China? American films and television dominate in faraway places. Is this good for the United States, and is it good for other countries? First, how did Sesame Street grow and what is its impact?

Michael Davis, journalist and author of “The Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street,” Yardley, PA: Sesame Street began for indigent children in the U.S. The show was aimed at black children in the ghettos. There was a gap back in the 1960s between the haves and the have-nots and children growing up in poverty were arriving at the school door ill-prepared. So, they created a television show meant to be as entertaining as it was informative. It caught fire in the U.S. and within that year it began to grow into Canada, the Caribbean, Germany and beyond.

Loory: The show in various places around the world has different characters and themes. How is the program presented in South Africa?

Linda Daniels, executive producer, “Breakfast Show,” Cape Talk Radio, Cape Town, South Africa: It is called Takalani Sesame, which basically means be happy. It deals with literacy, numeracy and hygiene, and there is a special focus on HIV/AIDS. This program seeks to teach HIV safety, promoting tolerance and reducing stigmas, in very ingenious ways. They have introduced a five-year old girl HIV puppet, she is yellow, her name is Kami. Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan have made guest appearances on the show, and Kami has traveled extensively.

Loory: Is this character contrary to the feeling of the South African government about AIDS?

Daniels: The media have seen as a significant shift in attitude towards HIV/AIDS, but even at the time, this character had a positive response. Some expected controversy around this character, but not at all. The South African audience understood Kami was talking directly to kids about a very sensitive topic that even parents cannot talk to kids about.

Loory: The program is shown in almost all of the countries of Latin America. What is the impact of the program there?

Marcelo Soares, investigative reporter, Sao Paolo, Brazil: In Brazil, Sesame Street began in 1972 as the first professionally-made educational children’s program. It was broadcast for five years before closing in 1977. We stayed without Sesame Street until 2007. Among the people who are now 40, it was extremely popular. Big Bird was blue in the Brazilian version. Sesame Street also has an important cultural impact here in terms of pop culture.

Loory: How is Sesame Street viewed in Europe?

Mildrade Cherfils, correspondent, Global Post, Paris, France: Sesame Street didn’t make it here in France. The French have their own iconic characters such as Asterix and Obelisk, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary. It is about a character that has adventures trying to save a Gallic village from Roman invasion.

Loory: What about the rest of Europe?

Davis: In Germany, Sesamstrasse has been a hit since its debut in the early 1970s and it is still going strong.

Loory: Is a variation of Sesame Street on the air in China?

Jonathan Landreth, senior China correspondent, Hollywood Reporter, Beijing, China: Imported cultural content in all broadcast media in China is strictly monitored. Sesame Street is not currently on the air. It is not unknown here, however, because boxed sets of pirated DVDs are widely available in most major cities. Sometimes it is very badly subtitled because the humor is difficult to translate. There was a brief effort in 1997 to work with the Sesame Street producers to create a localized version, but it never got off the ground. Imported children’s animation and television is barred from prime time in China, as the government tries to protect domestic industry and grow its own content.

Loory: Is the permission from the Chinese government to open a theme park in Shanghai likely to change that?

Landreth: It certainly is a signal that the people who monitor the entertainment industry are interested in opening the doors a bit more. It did take ten years of negotiations between Walt Disney and Shanghai and the Central government in Beijing to get to this stage. The deal is by no means completed. Beijing has now given Shanghai permission to go ahead and negotiate with Disney about building the park. The budget, how it will be built, and over what period, remain to be revealed.

Loory: A foot in the door in China is a market that must be coveted here in the U.S.

Landreth: Absolutely, as consumer spending on entertainment drops around the rest of the world and discretionary income rises in China, everyone has got their eye on this market. The box office at the movie theaters here has grown by 25 percent on average for five years in a row, and only reached $630 million in 2008—compared to $9.8 billion in the U.S.

Davis: The CEO of Sesame Workshop has been flying to China every quarter for the last couple of years. He is desperately trying to create a new show there that will embrace Chinese values but also have the taste of Sesame Street. Sesame Workshop is a nonprofit that really believes they have an ambassadorial role in the world. They believe that they are exporting something that is adaptable to almost every culture.

Loory: The intelligentsia in France is not completely happy with what is happening with American culture in France and around the world.

Cherfils: Exactly correct; there is a lot of protectionism here in terms of the language and culture. There is a quota as to how much English-language radio programs can be played on the air compared to French.

Loory: Is this a state-imposed quota?

Cherfils: Yes, it is a communications law, regulated by their version of the FCC. But, almost every big movie that comes out in the U.S., comes to France and is dubbed. The French idea of American movies, and sometimes it’s made fun of, is that they tend to have a happy ending. Movies and television are one of the reasons why the French can separate the politics from the people, and can dislike George W. Bush but also love America because they see it so much.

Loory: How about South Africa?

Daniels: Everything here is cast in the shadows of red, white and blue. For example, for (in) the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation) it is actually cheaper to syndicate American programs than to produce homegrown product. So, we have all the American television shows. Movies as well, the local film industry is finding it hard to compete with the American products. The culture is everywhere, not only movies and television, but also products. There is not really resistance to it from the South African population, it is more a case that this is here and people enjoy it.

Loory: China is now beginning to export entertainment as well. The film industry is growing; the Shanghai Symphony is touring in the U.S. in a few days.

Landreth: In 2008, more Chinese films did better at the box office than Hollywood films for the first time in recent memory. There is a huge move to promote Chinese culture to the new consumers here, so I think the Shanghai Symphony has a better chance of going overseas as a successful cultural product than do most of the Chinese films being made thus far. But, there are exceptions.

Producers of Global Journalist are MU journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, Melissa Ulbricht, and Megan Wiegand. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.




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