How Sesame Street Keep Winning in a Changing World

We know it by heart: the warm New York brownstone façade, the address 123 Sesame, and the almost familial cast of characters we’ve been growing with since longer than we can remember. Sesame Street is special, but for those of us who grew out of the daily tune-in, and grew out of the show’s target demographic, the success of our old favorite kids show can be an afterthought. But 45 years after its debut, the organization behind the show, Sesame Workshop, has proven how savvy about children’s behaviors, and a deep level of attention to changing generations needs and tastes, can continue to help a legacy TV brand maintain relevance though the changing tides of entertainment and education.

Listen to the Kids

In the late 90s, ratings had dropped – the realities of TV oversaturation had taken their toll on the viewer-base. Let’s not forget that when the show aired in 1969, essentially three networks plus PBS existed. As the millennium prepared to tick over, entire slates of kids programming now existed, on their own channels filled with competing kid content – to say nothing of the influence of digital technology. Sesame was quick to act – the advent of the VCR had taught us something about kid behaviors: kids were willing to binge-watch and re-watch favorite stories, despite our assumptions about short attention spans. Shows like Blues Clues had presented tightly linear episodes, eschewing the Sesame philosophy of quick sketches, boatloads of characters and rapid-fire bits of education and video. Kids responded with their attention.

SesameStreet_Info1_v2And this points us to one of the changes that help boost Sesame’s numbers back up to ruling preschool TV again – a revamped focus on stories and linear narratives. Instead of a tale about Telly's broken tuba playing out separated by various gaps – now the stories within a show play out within their own ‘mini-episodes’, told all at once, rather than drawn out in pieces across an entire episode. This has proven to be a huge source of success for kids watching.

''Children are able to understand a well-structured story a lot better than we believed they could in the late 1960's,'' - Daniel Anderson, University of Massachusetts.

Thematically, the show continues to research, adapt and expand its messaging into new areas.  As a simple example, while considering the realities of 17 million American kids who are 'food insecure' (around 1 in 4 kids), the show aired a special including a new puppet character Lily, who wasn't sure where her next meal was coming from.  The show combined its usual combination of humor, sensitivity and learning to a topic that is still discussed infrequently in the American household.

“Synthesizing the voices of dozens of contributors into a coherent, inventive vision, Sesame Street has managed to keep itself running through constant adaptation and reinvention. It’s a self-perpetuating machine that remains fresh and vital four-and-a-half decades after its series premiere. By most measures of television success, Sesame Street is the perfect show.” -The AV Club

Stepping Beyond the Stoop

But what of the digital space? As digital extensions of kids IPs have become no-brainer in the past decade, Sesame Street has proven it’s no slouch in this department either – just this February, the organization launched Sesame Street S’More, an interactive magazine app for kids. After a few months out, it’s already cemented itself as a staple piece of entertainment and learning in the home. Each bi-monthly issue features read-aloud narrated stories, matching games, puzzles, mazes, and other enjoyable activities and lessons to tap and click through, starring favorite characters like Elmo, Big Bird, The Count, and Bert and Ernie.

These days, 50% of the show's viewers watch in digital formats. Platforms include Neflix, PBSKids.org, SesameStreet.org, Amazon, iTunes and some 50 other apps. A Sesame Street YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, and 1.5 billion views. And touch screens have been "a magic wand for us in terms of engagement," says "Sesame Street" senior vice president Scott Chambers. Kids can trace letters or point to colors or shapes, and the app provides positive reinforcement.

By the Community; For the Community

“Forty-five years later, Sesame Street is the most documented, most researched, most scrutinized program in the history of television. “ - The AV CLub

Sesame Street holds a unique connection between generation, and age groups - partially due to its longevity, but largely due to its import in child development. Before any scripts are written, child development experts offer input on what today's kids need to succeed in school. That's why, in addition to teaching numbers, letters and values, the show now teaches behavior lessons, such as impulse control and listening to directions. For a poignant (and hilarious) example, look no further than this catchy original tune produced in conjunction with online blogging behemoth Mashable, starring Zachary Levi and Bert. The song never falters with tightly-knit puns linking the digital to the natural world, and landing an important message about digital fatigue, and making sure kids enjoy the pleasures of nature and face-to-face communities.

Sesame Street also has the highest "co-viewing" experience -- meaning adults watching with kids -- of any preschool show. Forty-nine percent of Sesame Street viewers are over age 18. That's why sketches often feature contemporary celebrity guests or pop culture references that a 3-year-old might not fully appreciate, but an adult will.

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To compete with the sheer volume of other animated shows, Sesame has also tweaked the ‘human nature’ of its sketches – opting to reduce the screen time of ‘on the street’ segments and adding more madcap puppet and animation antics. But that’s not to say the human characters have gotten short shrift. Mainstays like the wonderful Sonia Manzano who played Maria, who this summer, retired after an amazing 44-year run on the show, have undergone years of mature and thoughtful character development, and served as an emotional core for kids to learn to cope with everything ranging from death, to 9/11, to incarceration.

For the characters hanging out at 123 Sesame, change is the name of the game.  Sesame Workshop has spent nearly five decades reflecting the American experience in both an adult and child-friendly way - it's no wonder that the show is actually shown to help performance in school. From emotional intelligence, to acceptance, to arithmetic, Sesame Street is showing why it continues to be a good investment of kids' time.