It’s nearly impossible to hear the Sesame Street jingle without instantly picturing Big Bird and Oscar The Grouch. If you’re like us, you’re instantly transported back to your younger self, to an innocent child learning important life lessons from a friendly (but cranky) green monster living in a trashcan. Or maybe you were more of an Elmo fan or you related on a deep level to Cookie Monster. Either way, Sesame Street is iconic, and as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of this groundbreaking show, we’re amazed to say that it still holds up. The lessons, the songs, the welcoming attitude and warm sense of community that we grew up with still delivers the same level of positivity and hope to our kids and future generations for many years to come.
It’s hard to believe that Sesame Street first debuted 50 years ago. On November 10th, 1969, a pioneering show for young children premiered with the goal of providing educational and entertaining content in one unique series. It was going to change the game in terms of teaching children how to count and how to spell, but more than that, it was teaching kids how to be good people. The goal from the beginning was to teach kindness, empathy, and resilience, crucial social and emotional skills that educational content so often ignores. The show taught inclusion and acceptance by prioritizing diversity and honesty above all else. It put kids first and managed to develop and evolve with the times, addressing tough topics and exposing kids to the realities of life inaccessible, compassionate and purposeful ways.
“One of the most impressive things about Sesame to me is that we’ve always stayed true to our origins, our basic DNA in terms of addressing the needs of young children,” explained Sherrie Westin, president of global impact and philanthropy at Sesame Workshop, to Huff Post. “And I think the reason we stay relevant is that by always focusing on what those needs are, as the needs change, we step up.”
The show has certainly seen success over the past 5 decades, both in terms of awards and critical acclaim, as well as viewership. Since its premiere episode, over 74 million Americans have watched Sesame Street, and it is one of the longest-running shows on television. It reaches more than 150 million children across the globe, and even today an estimated 8 million people tune in to the show each week in the U.S. alone.
While it is not the only show to run successfully for this long — the only shows to be on-air longer are Meet the Press, Doctor Who, and The Tonight Show — it is arguably one of the most impactful shows of all-time. It changed the way television was used for more than just entertainment and demonstrated the power of a TV show to reach hundreds of millions of people of all ages across the world.
Even after hitting a rough patch and nearly being canceled back in 2015, Sesame Street has prevailed. The TV favorite sunk to an $11 million loss, at which point it left its original home on PBS and turned to HBO for funding. In 2018 Sesame Workshop, the non-profit organization that produces the program, reported an operating income of just $1.6 million, a low number for such a successful show, but a big improvement from its deficit years earlier. The majority of that money gets put back into the programming, which includes employing about 400 people, some of whom are very talented and long-time Sesame Street puppeteers.
Today you can watch your favorite Sesame Street episodes on HBO, and then those new episodes air on PBS nine months after premiering on HBO. Which means that despite nearly going broke, parents who watched the show back when they were kids along with their own children (and the new generation of Sesame Street fans) can learn from the Muppets together.
Sesame Street Changed The Game For Children’s Programming
It’s no secret that Sesame Street was (and is) a groundbreaking show. One major quality that sets it apart is that it was the first preschool educational program to base its contents and production values on research, according to Bridget Terry Long, Dean of the Graduate School of Education (GSE) at Harvard University. Much of that research was actually done at Harvard, and from the start, the show used modeling, repetition, and humor to help children develop both cognitive skills as well as social and emotional skills.
If you ask Westin, “it’s this effort to see the world through the eyes of a child that has helped Sesame Street become one of the longest-running shows in history.”
The show also prioritized diversity and inclusion from the beginning and has been dedicated to developing with the times.
Back in 1970s Sesame Street featured a boy with Down’s syndrome, a pioneering move at that time that was applauded by activists for kids with disabilities. They also featured a disabled girl in a wheelchair and kids who are deaf and blind.
For the South African and Nigerian versions of Sesame Street, the show introduced a Muppet who is HIV-positive, and who teaches basic facts about HIV and tackles the stigma of the illness. In 1991 the show introduced Rosita, Sesame Street’s first bilingual, Latina Muppet. In 2014, they introduced a new character named Julia, who has autism and the episode focused on teaching kids about the spectrum disorder. This is by no means an exhaustive list — there are too many groundbreaking moments to count — but clearly Sesame Street always valued inclusion and diversity, focusing on ways to make all kids and all views feel represented and simultaneously encouraging everyone to be accepting of others.
In addition to the characters portrayed on the show, Sesame Street also tackles tough and timely topics. They’ve addressed bullying, death, racism, divorce, being different and more, by showing Muppets and human kids talking about the important issues. While the subjects covered have definitely evolved with the times, they remain consistently open and honest, tackling difficult topics head-on with positive content that encourages diversity and understanding.
Celebrating 50 Years With Our Favorite Muppets
While the theme song to Sesame Street has always been “can you tell me how to get, how to get to Sesame Street?” it wasn’t until this past May that anyone could literally direct you to the famous street. On May 1st, 2019 — deemed Sesame Street Day — New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio changed the name of the Manhattan intersection of West 63rd Street and Broadway to “Sesame Street.” The newly appointed intersection will be permanently named after the show to celebrate its 50th anniversary and all that this program has done to enhance people’s lives for 5 decades.
And the anniversary celebration doesn’t end there. In addition to the annual day of celebration and the newly named road, as part of the show’s 50th-anniversary celebration this year Sesame Street also hosted a TV special and a 10-city road trip that took the Muppets cross-country touching 50,000 attendees along the way.
“What better way to celebrate 50 years of Sesame Street’s timeless lessons of respect, opportunity, and joy than by spending it with local communities that care so deeply about fostering the healthy development of their youngest residents,” said Steve Youngwood, Sesame Workshop’s President of Media and Education and Chief Operating Officer. “We were thrilled and humbled to meet so many families and look forward to 50 more years of creating new content featuring Big Bird, Elmo, and all your favorite friends to encourage a lifelong love of learning.”
We’ve lost track of how many times Sesame Street has touched our lives (we need Count von Count’s help in that department), but we’re thanking our lucky stars that the show is here to stay. Here’s to 50 more years of love, laughter, learning and kindness that we get to pass on to our kids and grandkids for decades to come.