Seen Sesame Street? It's been on for 45 years
You don't get to be the longest-running children's show in U.S. TV history by doing the same thing over and over. So even though parents who grew up watching "Sesame Street" can still see old favorites like Big Bird, things on the street have changed since the show debuted 45 years ago on Nov. 10, 1969.
Cookie Monster now exercises self-control and sometimes eats fruits and vegetables. Millions of kids watch the show on phones and computers instead of TV. And there's less time spent on the street with human characters. They're just not energetic enough for today's viewers.
That "Sesame Street" still exists at all says a lot. In 1973, it was one of two TV shows for preschoolers. Now it's competing with 84 kids' shows on TV and countless others online. Yet "Sesame Street" still holds its own. It ranks 20th among kids ages 2 to 5 with 850,000 viewers per TV episode, according to Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the show.
But now half the viewers watch it in digital formats. Options include SesameStreet.org, PBSKids.org, Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and some 50 apps. A "Sesame Street" YouTube channel has a million subscribers and 1.5 billion views. And touchscreens 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.
"Sesame Street" also has the highest "co-viewing" experience of any preschool show. That means adults watch with their kids. Nearly half of "Sesame Street" viewers are over age 18.
"We're very proud of that," said Chambers. "We design the show to engage the parent because we know that's more educational. If you have a parent watching with you, you're going to learn much more."
That's why sketches often have contemporary celebrity guests, or pop culture references that 2-year-olds don't get, but adults do. A James Bond parody stars Cookie Monster as a secret agent, Double-Stuffed 7, in "The Spy Who Loved Cookies." Another show celebrates "what makes people special," with Elmo telling Lupita Nyong'o that her skin "is a beautiful brown color." The actress responds, "Skin comes in lots of beautiful shades and colors ... I love my skin!"
It's a classic "Sesame Street" lesson about diversity that goes back to its groundbreaking roots as one of the few shows in the 1970s to feature all races and ethnicities. Today the show also routinely features children with disabilities.
The music has changed too. Those memorable lyrics, "Sunny day, sweepin' the clouds away, on my way to where the air is sweet," still open every episode, but now the song has a syncopated, jazzier beat. Other sketches feature hip-hop or Latin music.
Newer seasons also feature less of the actual street with human characters, and more puppets in skits with animation or other technical wizardry. Executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente says the puppets "have a madcap energy to them" that helps "Sesame Street" compete with the many other kids shows that are animated.
"Sesame Street" also is unique because 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 letters, numbers and values, the show now teaches behaviors like impulse control and listening to directions.
"Cookie Monster has been our poster child for self-regulation because of his love of cookies," said Parente. The puppet sometimes now eats fruits and vegetables instead although he may also devour the plate, table and chair.
Critical thinking challenge: Why do human characters get less air time now?