You don't get to be the longest-running children's show in U.S. TV history by doing the same thing over and over. So even though parents who grew up watching "Sesame Street" can still see old favorites like Big Bird, things on the street have changed since the show debuted 45 years ago on Nov. 10, 1969.
Cookie Monster now exercises self-control and sometimes eats fruits and vegetables. Millions of kids watch the show on phones and computers instead of TV. And there's less time spent on the street with human characters. They're just not energetic enough for today's viewers.
In Britain, a BBC kids' show, "Blue Peter," is even older — on since 1958 — but that "Sesame Street" still exists in the U.S. at all, given the competition here, says a lot. In 1973, it was one of two shows on U.S. television for preschoolers. Now it's competing with 84 kids' shows on TV and countless others online. Yet "Sesame Street" still holds its own, ranking 20th among kids ages 2 to 5 with 850,000 viewers per TV episode, according to Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization behind the show.
But now half the viewers watch it in digital formats. A "Sesame Street" YouTube channel has a million subscribers and 1.5 billion views. And touchscreens have been "a magic wand for us in terms of engagement," says "Sesame Street" senior vice president Scott Chambers. Kids can trace letters or point to colors or shapes, and the app provides positive reinforcement.
"Sesame Street" also has the highest "co-viewing" experience — meaning adults watching with kids — of any preschool show: 49 percent of "Sesame Street" viewers are over age 18. "We're very proud of that," said Chambers. "We design the show to engage the parent because we know that's more educational. If you have a parent watching with you, you're going to learn much more."
That's why sketches often have contemporary celebrity guests or pop culture references that 2-year-olds don't get, but adults do. One show celebrates "what makes people special," with Elmo telling Lupita Nyong'o that her skin "is a beautiful brown color." The actress responds, "Skin comes in lots of beautiful shades and colors … I love my skin!" It's a classic "Sesame Street" lesson about diversity that goes back to its groundbreaking roots as one of the few shows in the 1970s to feature all races and ethnicities. Today the show also routinely features children with disabilities.
Parents whose kids watch old episodes may be puzzled by warnings that the material may be inappropriate for today's children. Back in the day, Cookie Monster hosted the show as Alistair Cookie, and he had a pipe, imitating the real show's human host Alistair Cooke. Cookie Monster gobbled the pipe up rather than smoking it, but any reference to smoking is now unacceptable.
The music has changed too. Those memorable lyrics still open every episode, but now the song has a syncopated, jazzier beat. Other sketches feature hip-hop or Latin music. The Dracula-like Count von Count puppet uses a disco beat to teach a lesson about the number nine in his "Number of the Day" segment, and every episode ends with "Elmo the Musical," with Broadway-style songs and a velvet curtain.
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