This is how Lesley Stahl introduced her “60 Minutes” segment on CBS Sunday night about one of the most venerable children’s shows on TV: “There are not many shows on television that deserve to be called true American institutions—but one of them is surely ‘Sesame Street,’” Stahl said. “It’s been on the air now for almost 50 years.”
The same could be said of “60 Minutes,” which debuted in 1968, where Stahl is the correspondent most likely to do education-related segments. The peg for the “Sesame Street” piece is the introduction of the new Muppet character Julia, who has autism.
“The story begins with Julia’s friends, Muppets Elmo and Abby Cadabby, introducing her to Big Bird,” Stahl says in her report, which then show Big Bird meeting Julia and being confused when she doesn’t respond.
The story explains how the Julia character was meticulously researched and emerged from “Sesame Street” producer Sesame Workshop’s “social impact initiatives,” which are bonus web videos featuring stories about children of divorce or children of incarcerated parents, for example.
“The focus on autism began as one of these social impact projects—with videos,” Stahl says. “And an online animated storybook about a little girl named Julia. The initiative was so well-received, Sesame [Workshop] decided to bring Julia to the broadcast, which meant designing a new Muppet.”
The segment also highlights that the puppeteer hired to animate Julia, Stacey Gordon, is herself the mother of a young child with autism.
The rest of Stahl’s segment gives the basic origin story for “Sesame Street” and includes an interview with founder Joan Ganz Cooney, who first researched the idea in the 1960s at the request of the Carnegie Corporation.
But aside from a brief mention that the show now airs on HBO as well as PBS, the “60 Minutes” piece does not delve into the debate that ensued in 2015 when the pay-cable channel entered into a partnership with Sesame Workshop that means new episodes of the show appear on HBO before they air on PBS. Nor did it have time for the latest attempt to eliminate federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which, even if the cut were enacted, might not have much impact on Sesame Workshop but would hurt the public-TV stations that air “Sesame Street.”
Perhaps “60 Minutes” producers did not want any sour notes in the one upbeat segment in an episode in which the other segments—one about American workers being laid off and having to train their lower-paid replacements from overseas, the other about humanitarian efforts to relieve hunger in South Sudan—were unavoidably sad.
Although Stahl’s piece was a Sesame Workshop publicist’s dream, the addition of the character with autism is a legitimate story. And “60 Minutes” knows how to tell a good story. After all, the show has been doing it for almost 50 years.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.