Venerable U.S. Children’s Show Reaches Around Globe

By Rhea R. Borja — October 02, 2002 6 min read
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In Egypt, it’s known as “Alam SimSim.” In China, it’s “Zhima Jie,” and in South Africa, “Takalani Sesame.” No matter what the language, children from sub-Saharan Africa to the low-lying Netherlands know the popular American children’s television show “Sesame Street.”

International Page

The show, which had its debut in 1969, now airs in 140 countries and reaches tens of millions of families with its aim of early-childhood literacy and numeracy, according to Beatrice Chow, a spokeswoman for the New York City- based Sesame Workshop.

But it’s not exactly as if Big Bird has gone global. While some countries air the same episodes of “Sesame Street” that children in the United States watch—albeit dubbed in their native languages— Sesame Workshop also helps produce 20 international versions using indigenous characters, puppets, sets, and stories.

“Children learn in a specific cultural context,” said Charlotte Cole, the vice president for international research at Sesame Workshop. “It’s not important just what they learn, but how they learn.”

So instead of Oscar the Grouch, children in Egypt watch his Arabic-speaking cousin Nimnim, a furry blue “Mr. Know It All” creature. The main “street” for “Alam Simsim” (“Sesame World”) is also not the same one that American children see Snuffleupagus lumber down, but a street that mirrors typical Egyptian architecture, shops, and houses. And the human characters resemble people that children might see every day, such as Coptic grocer Am Girgas (“Uncle George”).

“Kids want to see themselves reflected [in characters] on the screen who speak the way they do, who do things they do in their own lives,” said Ms. Chow.

Besides the look of such international co- productions, the shows are tailor-made on a more substantive level. Experts in curriculum, child development, and other areas in the various countries developed the shows’ goals and subjects they want to teach.

In Egypt, where the illiteracy rate hovers at 50 percent, and where girls aren’t traditionally encouraged to attend school, “Alam Simsim” focuses on girls’ education, as well as health, literacy, the environment, and Egyptian culture. In South Africa, where one in nine people lives with the AIDS virus, “Takalani Sesame” recently introduced its first HIV-positive character. And in the Israeli and Palestinian-Jordanian versions of the program, “Sipuray Sumsum” and “Hikayat Simsim,” the shows’ goals are promoting respect, understanding, and cultural pride.

‘A National Treasure’

Research on the impact of the international co-productions shows promising results so far.

A UNICEF study in Mexico found that 3- to 6-year-olds who regularly viewed “Plaza Sésamo” tended to perform better at such basic educational skills as letter recognition, numeracy, and recognition of geometric shapes. A similar study conducted on the Russian “Ulitsa Sezam” also showed improved skill-learning by young children.

Researchers studying the Israeli and Palestinian-Jordanian co-productions found that preschoolers who watched the series increased their ability to identify elements of their own and each other’s cultures and gave more positive explanations when talking about conflicts.

An official for the United States Agency for International Development in Cairo, which helps underwrite “Alam Simsim,” credits the show in part for the gradual rise in Egyptian girls’ literacy rates. More than 90 percent of the country’s urban children and 86 percent of its rural children watch the show, which features Khokha, a bright, inquisitive girl puppet.

“It’s become a national treasure,” she said. “It has really broken new ground and set a new standard for educational content, entertainment, and quality production.”

The Egyptian version of the show has gained widespread support and appeal among both children and adults. The Ministry of Education has given its stamp of approval, and first lady Suzanne Mubarak has appeared on the show twice, as have many Egyptian celebrities. Hundreds of children’s letters pour into the show’s production company every week.

When the USAID official was a guest on an Egyptian radio program, she received phone calls from grown men with no children who wanted to talk about “Alam Simsim,” she said.

As a result, the show’s producers, USAID, and other sponsors hope to expand the show’s educational impact through a rural health- and hygiene-outreach project with the help of “Alam Simsim” posters, coloring books, and other materials.

Cultural Rifts

The educational impact and the popularity of the Egyptian show and other “Sesame Street” co-productions do not come easy, however. Securing tens of millions of dollars in funding from governments and businesses, gathering educational experts and officials together to plan the shows’ content and educational goals, and training international producers, puppeteers, and others who work on the shows take many months to pull together, Sesame Workshop officials say.

Planning for “Alam Simsim,” for example, began in 1997 though the show didn’t have its premiere until 2000. In the past five years, USAID/Cairo has given $8.4 million to produce the show as well as train Egyptian producers and air public service announcements on girls’ education and health.

Politics has also created challenges. The Israeli-Palestinian co-productions of the show, created after the signing of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, fragmented earlier this year amid the worsening strife in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In previous seasons, although the Israeli and Palestinian puppets lived on separate “streets,” the characters were shown as friends, meeting to explore the differences and similarities of their cultures.

Now, the title “Sesame Street” has been changed to “Sesame Stories,” reflecting that even in the imaginary world of children’s television, maintaining a place where divergent people can be friends sometimes seems impossible.

“It was an evolutionary decision we came to with our local partners that it would be too far removed from reality for the shows to continue [as they were],” said Shari Rosenfeld, the New York City-based project director for “Hikayat Simsim” and “Sipuray Sumsum.”

Planning and producing those two shows has also become more difficult because travel within the area is tenuous. The Palestinian staff can’t travel to Tel Aviv, and the Israeli staff won’t go to Ramallah. So instead, the two groups communicate mostly by phone and e-mail.

The Sesame Workshop and the Public Broadcasting Service, which airs “Sesame Street,” faced public outrage in the United States this summer when the HIV-positive character for “Takalani Sesame” was introduced. GOP lawmakers decried the move, saying that the character was inappropriate for the show’s preschool audience. They were assuaged after the Sesame Workshop said the character would not be shown in the United States and PBS said its debut in the South African co-production would receive no federal funding.

Other international co-productions also have not escaped controversy. When the Mexican “Plaza Sésamo” first aired in 1973, it was seen as trying to force-feed American culture to Mexican children. “But soon, people came to realize that this was produced in Mexico by Mexican producers and Mexican education specialists,” said Yolanda Platon, a content consultant for Sesame Workshop.

Similarly but more recently, government officials and the news media in Egypt at first criticized “Alam Simsim” as exporting American culture and values and ignoring Egypt’s.

“We’re protective of our heritage,” said Amr Koura, the executive producer of “Alam Simsim.” “But people gave us a chance, and the people who were skeptical are now fans.”

Coverage of international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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