Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Muppets Changing the World - Part 2

Gary Knell took over as CEO of Sesame Workshop not long after the organization’s founder, Joan Ganz Cooney, recruited him from WNET/Channel 13, where he was General Counsel. She attributes much of Sesame Workshop’s ability to compete to Knell’s idealism and enthusiasm. “He is high, high energy,” she told me, adding, “He is the best leader we’ve ever had, and that includes me.”

“One of the things he did that was astonishingly wonderful was putting together the partners for Sprout, the cable channel that is all pre-school all the time,” Cooney says. “He put together the partners, which include HiT Entertainment in London, PBS, and Comcast, who put up most of the money. We didn’t put up money, but, thanks to Gary’s skill, we ended up as part owners of the channel.” Knell also sold Noggin, which was a cable channel the Workshop started in partnership with Nickelodeon, to raise the money to buy the Muppets when they came on the market.

While Knell has been pushing the Workshop into new media, he hasn’t ignored the original mission of Sesame Street, which was to reach and teach preschoolers, particularly in disadvantaged homes. “We take this really seriously,” he says. “We’re the only show that has consistently looked at child development issues and applied those to media in a regularized way.” According to their annual report, the organization spent almost $9.5 million on research in 2007. Most of it, he explains, “is scientific educational research where we test segments with kids to make sure they’re pulling the lessons that are intended from the content.”

“For example, we did a segment a few years ago where Snuffie’s parents got divorced. Kids in tests thought their parents were going to get divorced every time they had an argument, so we never aired the segment.”

Dr. Mary Ann Reilly, an Associate Professor who teaches courses in K-12 literacy at Manhattanville College in Purchase, NY, points out that this is vastly different from the type of research done for commercial programs: “If you want to know what kind of sugared cereal you should eat, you can watch the Disney Channel. If you want to be a little bit more enlightened, you look at Sesame Street.”

Over 4,000 hours of Sesame Street have been created. The Workshop still produces 26 new shows every year so it stays perpetually current with issues of the day like childhood obesity and environmental concerns. But the program has been on the air nearly 40 years (the first episode aired November 10, 1969) and it’s still peopled by a singing green frog, brought to you by the Letter G and the Number 3, and takes place on a city street where graffiti apparently magically disappears. Is it relevant to kids today?

“Of course it’s relevant,” says Dr. Reilly. “Without question, there are far more choices for parents in terms of television watching. When I see some of the things on the channels dedicated to children, though, it’s truly alarming. From the Navy Seal ads to really questionable violence and things of that sort. A show that has movement, fantasy, fun, lots of language going on, notions of a neighborhood that’s integrated, that’s extremely relevant.”

Remember, too, while you may have seen all 4,000 episodes, your three-year-old hasn’t. Bert and Ernie are new neighbors to them.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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