Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Muppets Changing the World - Part 3

Sesame Street is on a global mission led by CEO Gary Knell. The program has always had some international distribution (a Mexican version, Plaza Sésamo premiered in 1972), but Knell has spread those shaggy puppet teachers into more than 120 countries and sees more on the horizon. “There are 150 million pre-school kids in India. It would be the fourth largest country in the world—made up entirely of five year olds,” he says, savoring the prospects. The opportunity is huge, but the mission is serious, according to Knell. “We take our model using research, content, and plot lines that deal with literacy, girls education, tolerance and respect, HIV/AIDS, global health and other issues.”

Knell is an inveterate globe-trotter himself, constantly on the move setting up partnerships with educators and production companies around the world. He got a good grounding for that early in his career, when he served as Managing Director of Manager Media International, a print and multimedia business based in Bangkok, Hong Kong, and Singapore.

Of course, his conversations today are with a different group of movers and shakers than the advertisers in Asia Times. When I visited his office recently, I noticed a framed handwritten note from Gerry Adams, President of Sinn Fein and spokesman for the Provisional Irish Republican Army. It says “PS: Thanks for the Cookie Monster!” The Workshop is working right now in another hotspot, Kosovo.

Sesame Street reaches about 8 million kids a week on TV in the U.S. and 70 million kids around the globe, according to Knell. “But there are 700,000,000 kids under 9 around the world with access to TV, so we’ve still got plenty of room to grow.”

It all melds together to make Sesame Street a significant influence on children everywhere. As founder Joan Ganz Cooney points out, “The domestic show is affected by work we’re doing abroad, just as the American versions affect the international versions. Sesame Street wants to make children aware of the world they live in, that it is bigger than where they live in the U.S.” Watch Sesame Street these days and you’re as likely to see Elmo wearing an Egyptian galabya and drinking mint tea as chomping on chocolate chip wafers with his blue googley-eyed friend, Cookie Monster.

Knell isn’t afraid to encourage his staff to take on unpleasant current issues, either, especially when they affect the lives of children. He’s very proud of the 400,000 Sesame Street DVD’s he got Wal-Mart to pay for to help families of U.S. soldiers serving overseas. The program helps them deal with issues of deployment, re-deployment, and homecoming, sometimes by fathers in wheelchairs.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

1 comment:

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Thanks, Dave, for spreading the word about Sesame Street's good work.
Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Chapter 1 is online!