Jesse Walker of Reason travels down “The Way to Sesame Street” to explore the surprisingly multifaceted “politics of children’s television:”
It’s hard to fathom just how unusual Sesame Street must have seemed when it debuted 40 years ago this month. The children’s TV show didn’t just mix entertainment with education: It was a full-blown collaboration between commercial showmen and social engineers. On one hand you had a team of educators, experts in child development, and officials at the Carnegie and Ford foundations trying to create a televised preschool. On the other hand you had veterans of projects ranging from Captain Kangaroo to The Jimmy Dean Show, including a gang of puppeteers best known for making strange and funny ads. The program itself reflected both an antipathy to commercialism and a fascination with commercials, which served not just as a source for its parodies but as a model for its programming.
The show emerged from the same Great Society milieu that had produced the Head Start preschool program. That guaranteed it would be a magnet for controversy. In his 2006 book Sesame Street and the Reform of Children’s Television, the historian Robert Morrow notes that preschool in the ’60s was frequently framed as a project for the impoverished, who were presumed to suffer from “cultural deprivation.” Not surprisingly, many poor people found this attitude haughty and high-handed. The middle class, meanwhile, often saw the home as “a haven to be protected from intrusions by educators as well as by television.”
Walker writes above that Sesame Street “was a full-blown collaboration between commercial showmen and social engineers.” You can get a sense of how much the latter have accomplished by going back to the earliest episodes and seeing what those engineers of the soul are uncomfortable with today. As I asked in 2007, when today’s incarnation of the show is being issued forty years from now in super-holographic ultra-HD-DVD, direct injections into the cerebral cortex, or however video will be distributed, what else will they look askance at?