Ernie: “Hello Bert!”
Bert: “Hey, you’ve got a banana in your ear!”
Bert: “I said, You’ve got a banana in your ear Ernie! Bananas are food, to eat, not to put in your ear!”
Ernie: “What was that Bert?”
Bert: “WOULD YOU JUST TAKE THAT BANANA OUT OF YOUR EAR!!?”
Ernie: “What? Can you speak louder Bert!? I can’t hear you — I’ve got a banana in my ear!”
(Bert is then mad at Ernie.)
Remember Ernie and Bert? Cookie Monster and Grover? Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus? The characters from 123 Sesame Street are well known to many Americans. But “Sesame Street” is also the “longest street in the world,” because its program educates children around the world.
Sesame Street first aired in 1969 as an American television show aimed at using television to educate underprivileged children in order to bridge the educational gap between children from different economic backgrounds. “Sesame Street” is now showing in over 140 countries, with international coproductions in countries ranging from India to Kosovo to Russia. The Sesame Workshop’s mission is to make a difference in children’s lives around the world by addressing their critical development needs.
The “Sesame Street” approach to its global audience typically involves creating local productions using the traditions and values of the cultures where they are to be broadcast. “Children learn best when their educational experiences map their daily life experiences,” says Dr. Charlotte Frances Cole, senior vice president of global education at Sesame Workshop, formerly the Children’s Television Workshop, the New York-based nonprofit organization behind “Sesame Street.” “When children watch television or engage with the media, they look for kids [who] look like themselves and kids [who] they relate to, [who] act or that are engaging in an experience that is similar.”
Both private and public sector funding is required to ensure the sustainability of Sesame Workshop projects. This includes diverse sources such as contributions from charitable foundations and individuals, grants from government agencies, corporate sponsorships, program sales, and product licensing. All profits are put back into furthering the workshop’s mission.
To make the shows culturally relevant, the coproductions are carefully researched and planned using local experts. “We only want to go places where we can be helpful and where there are local stakeholders that are invested in the project philosophically,” says Cole. “We want people who are going to champion the project on the ground.”
“Sesame Street” tries to figure out the best forms of delivering educational messages — and this is not always through television. “Each country has its own needs, and you have to build the production around that,” says Cole. In certain countries, televisions — and even electricity — might not be commonly found in private homes. In Bangladesh, the program is delivered by a TV on rickshaws, where children can gather around and watch together. In India, “Sesame Street” travels by vegetable carts down narrow alleyways in order to reach children. Where there is a lack of electricity, “Sesame Street” might use a bioscope. Five children can gather around it and view still pictures from the show that are manually advanced as a tape recorder plays music that goes along with the pictures. In parts of Africa, radio remains a very effective way to reach difficult areas, and, in a partnership with Malaria No More, “Sesame Street” has a book program in Tanzania that teaches children about the importance of using mosquito nets.
What it all comes down to is capturing the attention of children and teaching them about their world — skills and lessons that will be applicable in their everyday lives. This may be numbers and letters and healthy eating in the United States, but in Bangladesh’s “Sisimpur,” a character named Tutuki makes the point that girls can have an equal share in the opportunities that boys enjoy. In South Africa, where it was estimated that 18.1 percent of the population aged 15 to 49 was living with HIV or AIDS in 2007, AIDS awareness is taught through the use of an HIV-positive Muppet name Kami who has been orphaned by a mother who died of AIDS. While such a character would undoubtedly be considered controversial if seen on the American version of “Sesame Street,” local experts determined that the only way to have a responsible educational children’s program in South Africa was to include this kind of information that kids desperately need. In 2003, UNICEF formally appointed Kami of “Takalani Sesame” a global “Champion for Children.”
“I think that one of the things that is very important to remember about “Sesame Street” is we’ve never shied away from difficult issues,” says Cole, noting the original show in 1969. “It was born out of the Johnson era’s War on Poverty, with a concept of elevating children out of poverty through education.” That’s why they set it in a fictional neighborhood — a racially diverse neighborhood. “That was a radical kind of statement in some people’s minds at the time, and it was controversial to the degree that in one state the program was initially banned from broadcast.” That, she says is their international legacy.
Not only is “Sesame Street” “the world’s longest street,” says Cole, it’s also the world’s longest two-way street. Global lessons go both directions, as educators, diplomats, producers and all of the others involved in creating the show’s production work together to determine the best way to effectively reach children. American audiences can now partake in of some of the international episodes as well. Award-winning episodes of “Sesame Street From Around the World” is available on Amazon for free. An episode from “Rechov Sumsum,” the Israel coproduction, teaches that it is normal to fear the unfamiliar, as well as the importance of hygiene and cleanliness. From Northern Ireland, “Sesame Tree” teaches children the value of sharing. One episode of Palestine’s “Shara’a Simsim” teaches children how to overcome their fears and work together as a team as everyone cleans up the street together after a destructive storm.
“Sesame Street” has been seen by millions of children around the world over the last 40 years. No other program addresses the educational needs of underprivileged children on such an immense global scale. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan says, “There is nothing more important in preventing future crises than the kind of work “Sesame Street” does in so many countries around the world … in opening the minds of young people, in uniting us around our common humanity while respecting the culture and context of every country it works in.”
For more information, visit sesameworkshop.org/aroundtheworld.