Sesame Street has ushered in a Golden Age of educational television

Sesame Street has ushered in a Golden Age of educational television
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Pioneering programme Sesame Street just celebrating its 50th anniversary, having touched the lives of more than 86 million Americans—and countless children overseas— since the series made its debut in 1969. The show’s current executive producer, Ben Lehmann, was himself a toddler that year, and the broadcast that began as an experiment has kept the same goal throughout the decades: to make kids smarter, stronger and kinder.

“‘Sesame Street,’ from the very beginning, has adopted playful learning as its approach to teach,” explained Rosemarie Truglio, head of curriculum and content at the Sesame Workshop, “[The show’s characters] talk. They eat. They sleep. They cry. They’re real. And when you develop that connection, you’re going to learn more from a character that you care about.”

Sesame Street sprung from the imagination of Lloyd Morrisett and Joan Ganz Cooney, with Cooney drawing inspiration from children’s absorption of beer commercial jingles on TV. Children’s television shows at the time were typically shot in plain-looking studios and hosted by old, white men and women; Sesame Street burst onto the screen with abstract animation, catchy music and documentary footage of diverse kids and adults performing everyday activities.

The show’s writers were, and continue to be, set on helping children learn to read and count, and healthily navigate issues like death, diversity, autism, infertility, adoption, divorce and HIV. According to recent research, they’ve carved out the right track.

When Sesame Street first aired fifty years ago, some two-thirds of US households had access to the show due to a higher-quality television signal. One-third missed out. Economists Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine have now compared these two groups against academic performance and test scores, and found that children who watched the series—particularly boys, African-American and economically disadvantaged kids—were less likely to fall behind at school.

This puts Sesame Street on the same standing as the US Head Start early childhood education programme, with the benefits especially significant for children living in otherwise deprived areas. This is particularly astonishing given the difference in cost of the programmes: at its peak, Sesame Street cost around $5 per child per year, while the federal government funnels $7,600 per child into Head Start annually.

Furthermore, while Sesame Street is still going strong fifty years on, it has also created an entire industry for educational television. New entrants come from all over the world, and are trailblazing paths for innovation and access in all directions. Russian animated “edutainment” series BabyRiki, for example, has already proved a huge hit in China: in its first week on Chinese digital platforms, the show’s episodes had racked up more than 25 million views.

“BabyRiki resonates with toddlers and parents due to its appealing characters and beautiful setting,” highlighted Christine Brendle, former CEO of joint venture Fun Union, which owns the rights to Riki-branded media outside the CIS region. “The series was developed alongside child psychologists to ensure that children would learn through fun and engaging storylines. It has no violence or evil characters and focuses strongly on developing social-emotional skills.”

This commitment to helping children soak up knowledge through entertainment helped Fun Union garner investment from Hong Kong-based investment fund Meridian Capital Limited. As Meridian Capital founding partner Askar Alshinbayev emphasized, “Fun Union’s series entertain children across the globe while helping them learn through play and sparking interest in the world around them from a young age.”

On top of this investment, recent months have seen Fun Union announce a burst of international airing deals. The firm launched the BabyRiki show on US on-demand network Kabillion, where it’s reached more than 60 million homes and quickly burst into the top-5 most-watched shows on Kabillion for the preschool-aged segment.

A number of other prominent firms are also using mobile apps to creatively educate children. The infamously-catchy Baby Shark song inadvertently become a viral sensation around the world, spawning a dance craze, an 80-minute live production and even emerging as a rallying cry for anti-government demonstrators in Lebanon. The earworm, however, is only one of thousands of songs produced by South Korean educational company SmartStudy, which makes entertaining apps and videos designed to help Korean children learn English.

The company’s animated fox character Pinkfong has become a major sensation in the preschool education market and SmartStudy is steadily expanding abroad. China, where competition in the edutainment market has rapidly intensified following the Chinese government’s decision to drop the one-child policy, is a key target. SmartStudy has attempted to separate its products from the competition by tailoring each product to its audience—even police cars, for example, make different sounds in accordance with the country videos are intended for, while videos for the Chinese market are incorporating traditional Chinese folktales. This attention to detail and commitment to diversity seems directly descended from Sesame Street, and SmartStudy co-founder Ryan Seungkyu Lee has been quick to pay homage to the 50-year-old programme when describing his firm’s rise to success.

Today’s edutainment landscape is as culturally diverse as it colourful, and this trajectory is set to continue as the industry uncovers new avenues to reach children wherever they are. As Sesame Street turns 50, this plethora of new quality edutainment options from all corners of the globe is perhaps the Street’s biggest legacy.