For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine the shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced and reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity. This entry covers Sesame Street, currently in its 45th season.
If there’s a monster at the beginning of Michael Davis’ exhaustive Sesame Street history, Street Gang, then that monster goes by the perfectly Jim Henson-esque name of Newton N. Minow. The chair of the Federal Communications Commission during the Kennedy administration, Minow rocketed to notoriety thanks to these words he shared with the National Association Of Broadcasters in 1961:
[W]hen television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, Western bad men, Western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials—many screaming, cajoling, and offending.
If Minow’s relative inexperience in broadcasting hadn’t already alienated him from the people making those game shows, comedies, Westerns, cop shows, and cartoons, his so-called “vast wasteland” speech finished the job. The stir caused by the speech sent network executives scrambling to appease the FCC. Some would fight the reforms inspired by Minow’s NAB address with humor: Sherwood Schwartz named his doomed Gilligan’s Island vessel after Minow, wrecking the man who “ruined television” at the beginning of every episode. (If not for that intrepid crew…) Others dwelled on a later, less-cited portion of the piece, in which Minow uses flaws in the Nielsen ratings system (hey, the guy couldn’t be completely wrong) as a reason to go all Helen Lovejoy on his audience. “Is there no room on television to teach, to inform, to uplift, to stretch, to enlarge the capacities of our children?” he asked.
Later in the decade, a band of producers, writers, performers, and educators would rise to and exceed Minow’s challenge, proving that flowers could still bloom in this so-called wasteland. There could be a place on the TV dial where the horizons of young viewers were expanded—it just had to operate outside of commercial concerns. (Though this new destination would prove that TV advertising, like game shows and comedies and Westerns, had its redeeming qualities, too.) All this venture needed was a name, a service a familiar talking dog and his frog companion were happy to provide.
Forty-five years later, Sesame Street is the most documented, most researched, most scrutinized program in the history of television. But it was that way before its revolutionary run even began—long before Street Gang, Brian Jay Jones’ Jim Henson: The Biography, or even Big Bird’s big break as a Time magazine cover star in 1970. The show’s 1969 debut was the culmination of an intense three-year development process, with hundreds of words devoted to Sesame Street’s aims and intentions, stemming from focus groups, panels of experts, and a feasibility study conducted by a former producer at New York’s legendary public-television station, Channel Thirteen. The author of that report, Joan Ganz Cooney, had been involved with the project from the start, when the future of children’s television (and the groundwork for the Children’s Television Workshop) was laid out during a dinner party in her Manhattan apartment. The topic of conversation: Could the power of television be harnessed to entertain and educate simultaneously?
This has always been the question at the heart of the Two-Headed Monster that is Sesame Street. Entertainment and education are forces that should seemingly pull in opposite directions, yet the show makes them work in concert, moving toward a common goal. Sesame Street’s longevity and enduring appeal speak less to what television wasn’t doing in 1961 and more to what TV could do in 1968, 1983, and today. Beyond Sesame Street’s unsurpassed ability to mix vegetables in with its cookies, the show has lived up to the loftiest ideals of its medium. 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.
Cooney became Sesame Street’s loyal guardian and fierce protector, and her dinner guest Lloyd Morrisett would be its great advocate among the philanthropic organizations that built the brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, but no one person (or even its two credited co-creators) can claim credit for the perfect show. Illustrating one of its prevailing, Great Society-derived messages, Sesame Street is a product of cooperation. In his first meeting with Cooney, executive producer David Connell was told, “The show was never going to be ‘owned’ by a single talent.” (This was immediately proven when Connell and producer Jon Stone set aside an old personal grievance from their time on Captain Kangaroo in order to work together on Sesame Street.) Jim Henson’s creative magnetism had helped him own plenty of other past projects, but on Sesame Street, he and his Muppet performers were another part of the team. The most visible, most marketable part of that team—but without the input of people like Stone or songwriters like Joe Raposo or Jeff Moss, the Muppet performers would be without Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch, without “Bein’ Green” or “Rubber Duckie.”
Even so, there’s no overstating what the Muppets’ brought to Sesame Street. Connell, Stone, and producer Sam Gibbon reportedly swore an agreement regarding the man who’d charmed The Jimmy Dean Show audience with Rowlf The Dog and torched grocery store aisles as the La Choy Dragon: “If we can’t get Henson, then we just won’t have puppets.” The controlled chaos of Jim Henson’s creations was essential to Sesame Street’s sense of energy, a style that initially owed as much to Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In as the advertising game the Muppets were starting to break out of. It was one of Sesame Street’s masterstrokes to present lessons in phonics and counting in the form of television commercials, a move inspired by anecdotal research from the Morrisett home as well as findings from Cooney’s feasibility study. Young children were showing tremendous responsiveness to jingles for products they couldn’t even buy; soon they’d get a greater return on investment from Sesame Street inserts like the one in which furry, lovable Grover gives demonstrations for a pair of products known as “near” and “far.”
“This is basically a sketch comedy show,” Sesame writer Norman Stiles told The New York Times on the occasion of the show’s 20th anniversary. That concept was already broadened by 1989, and it’s continued to evolve over the last 25 years, leading to longer, episode-long stories as well as regular, compartmentalized segments like Elmo The Musical or What’s The Word On The Street? The core of these and other segments remains the same, however: To paraphrase Cooney, the show always entertains while it educates, and educates while it entertains.
Take season 42’s “Spider-Monster: The Musical,” for example. Essentially a topical comedy sketch based on the production woes that temporarily grounded Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, “Spider-Monster” begins from an age-old Sesame Street premise: The rivalry between eager-to-please Grover and his never-pleased customer Mr. Johnson. That comic relationship transcends the topical hook; nearly a year after Turn Off The Dark’s final performance, there’s still humor in watching Spider-Monster attempt to fly (“to the skyyyyyyy”), only to land in poor Mr. Johnson’s lap. This odd couple had been engaged in the same tug of war since 1971, but the show’s writers continue to find fresh angles for Mr. Johnson’s frustration, with this one integrating a contemporary push for more science, technology, engineering, and mathematics lessons in the Sesame Street curriculum. The solution to Grover’s problem in “Spider-Monster” lies in the type of simple machines he now investigates in the guise of Super Grover 2.0—but in those segments as well as this one, there’s still room for a slapstick punchline.
Flexibility is the surest mark of Sesame Street’s longevity, one that keeps the show on the air and vital, even as some of today’s parents complain that the show isn’t as good as when they were kids. This is a constant refrain in the comment sections and video descriptions for YouTube uploads of vintage Sesame clips, sometimes hyperbollically so: Sharing the original version of Johnny Cash’s “Tall Tale,” user sawing14s declares that tailoring the segment for young viewers of the 2007 DVD Kids’ Favorite Country Songs is “a form of un-American censorship.” But if Sesame Street was afraid of making such adjustments, some of its most beloved characters would be unrecognizable: Oscar The Grouch would still have orange fur, and an antennae-bearing Telly Monster would go swirly eyed in the presence of a television set.
Sesame Street was made to handle such alterations, sure as the detailed research that informs its content will always identify new topics to address and new viewing habits to accommodate. Hence the half-hour version of the show that debuted this fall and the increased accessibility of streaming Sesame Street clips in the ongoing YouTube age. Putting so much of the show’s run in one place might demonstrate how much it’s changed in 45 years—but it also demonstrates what’s remained the same. Sesame Street has kept a remarkable standard of quality across the decades, arguably easier to maintain now that the show follows a more conventional production schedule. Since season 34, Sesame Street has produced 26 to 44 new episodes per year, a considerable reduction from the 130 new shows it once turned out annually. That reduces the amount of screentime available to the show’s stars, but Sesame Street veterans like Emilio Delgado and Sonia Manzano (most recently seen introducing the number sponsor of season 45’s sixth episode) continue to make their presences felt, their on-screen appearances being the surest sign of Sesame Street’s longevity this side of Muppets being unwittingly pulled into ever-raging debates on public-television funding.
That’s another important aspect of Sesame Street’s success: The show helped make public television viable in the United States. Along with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street raised the profile of its original network, NET, and stood as a key selling point for the local affiliates who joined NET’s successor, PBS. With its bright colors and abundant sense of humor, the show broke the stereotypes that portrayed NET and PBS’ offerings as dull, dry lectures or sober public-affairs reporting. Sesame Street triumphantly argued that amusement was not the enemy of public broadcasting, educational television, or children’s programming. By maintaining ownership of its flagship series and not exposing it to the whims of commercial broadcasters, Children’s Television Workshop (now Sesame Workshop) was able to shape Sesame Street outside of concerns for ratings and profit. There’s still been plenty of the latter, as the 50-50 split of merchandising revenues between the Workshop and Jim Henson’s production company bolstered the independence of both entities.
Sesame Street plays by a set of rules that’s different from nearly any other television show’s. But it’s those different rules that allow Sesame Street to be Sesame Street, to continue investing in research and meeting the needs of an ever-changing audience. Yet no matter the tastes or the expectations of that audience, the same truths carry over from one generation of Sesame Street visitors to the next: Grover’s exasperation will always be funny. Mismatched pairs like Bert and Ernie will always need to find the common ground that helps them get along. (Though the negotiating tactic of one party swiping the other’s nose is sadly unavailable to those of us in the real world.) The Big Birds in our lives will always need an honest explanation of why Mr. Hooper can’t come back.
Sesame Street has acknowledged those truths and serves those needs, through a procession of game shows, thunder, mayhem, Western bad men, Western good men (and good women), private eyes, gangsters, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials, 30- to 60-second spots that put a positive spin on one of TV’s most maligned features, engaging segments that gave advertising jingles to letters, numbers, shapes, and emotions. The wasteland was never as vast as the Newton Minow described in 1961—but since 1969, Sesame Street has been building an oasis in that territory.
Next time: This is the story all about how / Kate Knibbs’ life got flipped turned upside down / Now she’d like to take a minute, just sit right there / She’ll tell you how Will Smith became The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air