Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

Sesame Street - Growing Up With a Three Minute Attention Span

In 1973 I became Saturday Night’s television critic, a position I held through 1980. I found myself focusing on the nature of the medium and the the differences between Canadian and American culture as revealed by looking at my television screen. I was fascinated by Sesame Street.

The sun never sets on Sesame Street. The popular American children’s programme is now seen in almost sixty countries around the world. It’s on television in Brazil, in Indonesia, in Japan, in Pago Pago, and in Zambia. Even countries such as Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania have experimented with it. There’s a Plaza Sesamo, a Via Sesame, a Bonjour Sesame a Sesamstrasse, a Sesami Storito, a Sezmulica.

Sesame Street, which has just completed its sixth year, has become the most widely seen (and studied) television programme in the world. It’s probably also the most widely admired. And with good reason. Whatever its educational value, there’s no doubt that the programme is enormously entertaining. Patterned on the commercial, its brilliant use of just about every technique known to television simply dazzles the eye and the mind of the viewer. The muppets are superb — they’re the best puppets most of us have ever seen. My favourite is the cookie monster — I’d like to be one when I grow up — and the Muppet spoofs of fairy tales are a delight.

Some countries — Canada, for instance — pay for the right to use the programme; “underdeveloped” countries have it given to them gratis. In Canada, although the CBC continues to pay lip service to the importance of its other programmes for young children, Mr. Dressup, The Friendly Giant and Mon Ami, it’s clear from the kind of money and attention lavished on Canadian inserts for Sesame Street that it has become the cornerstone of CBC programming for pre-schoolers. My guess is that the CBC spends a hundred thousand dollars a year producing 120 half hour episodes of Mr. Dressup ; it spends several hundred thousand dollars on seventy Canadian inserts for Sesame Street, which have an average length of one and a half minutes. The latter sum is available for children’s programming only because it’s for Sesame Street, which CBC management, along with everyone else, fell in love with several years ago.

The amount of Canadian content in Sesame Street grows each year. In 1973 there were five minutes of inserts in each hour carried by the CBC; last year there were eight to ten minutes of inserts; this year there are fifteen. The CBC is now negotiating with the Children’s Television Workshop in New York, which produces Sesame Street, for permission to include twenty minutes of Canadian material in each programme beginning in January, 1976. In January of 1977, it’s hoped, it will be thirty minutes, and the setting will be a fictitious street in working-class Montreal. The programme will then likely have a nice continental title — Sesame Street North.

According to the present contract, the CBC is permitted to replace Spanish items in the American Sesame Street with French ones; to insert mood pieces (the sequence of ponies running on Sable Island is an example); and to insert items that teach children about the cultural and physical diversity of Canada. New York doesn’t permit the CBC to use puppets (as if the Muppets needed protection from competition). All the number and letter sequences must be taken from the American show with the exception of the letter Z. Given the different pronunciations of that letter in the two countries, Canada has New York’s permission to delete as many “zees ”as it can and to substitute “zeds.”

Despite the programme’s obvious charms, Sesame Street does have its detractors. The Mexican writer Guillermo Tenorio describes Plaza Sesamo as “an example of imperialistic intrusion into the social, educational, and political life of the countries in which is is shown.” The Peruvian government concurs, and has banned the programme. Jack Hood Vaughn, former director of the U.S. Peace Corps and a former ambassador to Colombia, who was until recently director of international development for Sesame Street, disagrees with the criticism. According to Vaughn, “If you call this imperialism, you might as well call kindergarten an example of German imperialism.” The French version of Sesame Street, he insists, “looks so French you can’t believe it’s a U.S. product.”

Sesame Street, continued > 

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