Sesame Street’s Big Birthday

November 11, 2009 2 min read
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If you’ve been exposed to any kind of news media over the last couple of days you couldn’t miss all the coverage of Sesame Street as the groundbreaking program hit its 40th birthday. And if you or your children grew up with Elmo, Big Bird, and Oscar you know what all the hoopla is all about.

Not only did Sesame Street set the standard for quality educational programs, it has stayed current with subsequent generations of children through new-media features and expansion to 140 countries. The Sesame Street Web site includes a range of interactive features, as I described in this story earlier this year on the growing evidence of the impact of such programs.

The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, named for one of the founders of the program, has expanded that work by commissioning research and disseminating best practices about digital learning for children.

But for most children and older fans of the program, it is both simple and sophisticated in engaging children in lessons aimed at building literacy, math, and character. A recent rerun of a 2007 episode, however, ruffled some viewers’ political sensibilities. The program included a segment with Oscar the Grouch which referred to the Grouch News Network and called Pox News a “trashy” network.

Comments sent to the Public Broadcasting Service, which broadcasts Sesame Street, suggested that the segment was a cheap shot at Fox News, the conservative news network. PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler addressed the controversy here, and provided an update with additional letters of criticism and support from viewers.

Producers of the show responded, saying the episode was an “equal-opportunity parody” and not intended as a political statement.

The show, producers wrote, “was written in the fall of 2006 -- long before the Fox-Obama controversy, even before Obama was President. The whole segment was a parody of CNN (called GNN) or the ‘Grouch News Network.’ Children who watch Sesame Street (and adults who remember what it felt like to be a kid watching Sesame Street) know that Oscar the Grouch is a contrarian. He lives in a trash can and loves everything ‘yucky,’ and ‘disgustin.’ For a Grouch, ‘Trashy’ is high praise! Not only would child-viewers be unlikely to connect ‘Pox News’ to Fox News, in the context of this scene, they would understand the characters to be saying that ‘Pox News’ is better than ‘GNN.’”

What do you think? Is Big Bird becoming more political in middle age? Would the preschool set notice any such subtle or unintended messages?

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.


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