Segment from Sunny Days

The Founding of Sesame Street

Ed talks with Lloyd Morrisset, co-founder of Sesame Street, about the initial goal of the show, which was all about closing the education gap between rich and poor children. 


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Speaker 1: Major funding for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Brian Balogh: From Virginia Humanities, this is BackStory.

Brian Balogh: Welcome to BackStory, the show that explains the history behind today’s headlines. I’m Brian Balogh.

Ed Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers.

Joanne Freeman: And I’m Joanne Freeman.

Brian Balogh: If you’re new to the podcast, we’re all historians, along with our colleague Nathan Connolly. Each week, we explore a topic in American history.

Ed Ayers: For many Americans, nothing brings back wistful childhood memories quite like Sesame Street. Whether it was practicing your ABCs with Big Bird, learning the value of friendship from Bert and Ernie, or exploring your emotions with Elmo, the show has a special place in hearts all across the country.

Ed Ayers: Since it first aired in 1969, Sesame Street has raked in countless awards and has become one of the longest running children’s television shows in history. But in 1966, Sesame Street was nothing more than an idea.

Lloyd Morrisett: Several of the people at the party were interested in or actually working in television.

Ed Ayers: That’s Lloyd Morrisett, the co-founder of Sesame Street. He says the origins of the show can be traced back to a dinner party in New York City hosted by Joan Cooney, a television producer.

Lloyd Morrisett: I said at one point in the conversation, “Joan, do you think television could be used to teach young children?” Her answer was, “I don’t know, but I’d like to talk about it.”

Ed Ayers: Without question began the development of what would become Sesame Street. But to understand why Lloyd would ask such a question, we have to rewind a bit. Before Sesame Street, he was a psychologist at the Carnegie Corporation, an organization that supports academic policy and childhood development. At the time, there was lots of talk about the education gap between rich and poor children. That’s where Lloyd’s work as a psychologist comes in.

Lloyd Morrisett: We financed I think three to five, I’m not sure of the number anymore, experiments to see if something could be done about it, where children were given the special treatment, special curriculum, and to see whether or not when they went into school, they could do better. All of those programs worked.

Ed Ayers: But Lloyd says those experiments, while successful, only reached a few thousand children. His solution to that problem, television, but not everybody agreed with him.

Lloyd Morrisett: The general feeling in the academic world at the time was that television was the boob tube. There wasn’t any uniform feeling that it was really possible for television to be of beneficial educational applications. The audience we were particularly trying to reach was a disadvantaged audience that was otherwise likely to fail in the early grades.

Lloyd Morrisett: Typically, speaking, there were about four and a half million children entering school each year. About a third of those would enter at a disadvantage in reading, for example, of three months. By the end of first grade, they would be further behind. By third grade, they’d be a year behind and they never made it up.

Lloyd Morrisett: Now, most of those children lived in urban areas. In choosing a setting for the program, we chose an urban area. Of course, we were in New York, that had a very large population of the children we were talking about. Decided that it should be in New York and it should be, in the very beginning, representative of the multicultural nature of New York.

Ed Ayers: Over time, did it turn out that kids who were not from disadvantaged backgrounds were just as attracted to the show, kids who grew up in the countryside and never really seen a city street? Did you find that strategy that you had to reach your target audience also reached other kids?

Lloyd Morrisett: Well, the viewing conditions were very different then than they were now. The time we went on the air in 1969, a typical family would have one television set and the family would watch the television together, because there was only one program [inaudible 00:05:04] watched. We had to design a program that would appeal fairly broadly to both adults and children. The writers concentrated on having content that adults would find humorous and funny, and keep them involved so that children would indeed watch.

Lloyd Morrisett: Now, what happened in answer to your question was yes, we did find that the entertainment values in the show attracted children who did not need as much in the educational realm as the children we were directing the curriculum at. As the audience grew, I think it meant that we really had to continue to think of the curriculum that was going to most benefit the children most in need, but at the same time, keep the show entertaining enough so that it would have a large audience that attract adults as well as children.

Ed Ayers: There was television that young people learned something from before Sesame Street. I was fascinated by Captain Kangaroo. I loved the show, so I shouldn’t speak poorly of it, but the main thing I remember is I really, really wanted a Schwinn bicycle. He had this great sense of solidarity with him, and then he would come on there and talk about just how excellent a Schwinn was. I can remember just, “Uh, it’s so solid and excellent.” How would you differentiate yourselves in the early days from shows like Captain Kangaroo?

Lloyd Morrisett: Over the first year of the program, the main hurdle that we had to overcome was to prove that television could indeed be used to teach other children. The study that was done after the first year showed that the more children watched, the more they learned. Indeed, they did learn some of the things we were trying to teach. The things we were trying to teach were chosen not only because they were things that were useful to children, but they were also things that could be measured. Did they know their letters? Did they know their numbers? So on.

Ed Ayers: At the beginning, the very explicit purpose of Sesame Street was to give kids who otherwise were starting in a deficit when they started school a headstart. Do you feel that Sesame Street has helped narrow the gap between more and less fortunate kids?

Lloyd Morrisett: In some ways, yes, but in accomplishing the original goal, no. The demographics of that group have changed considerably over the years. That is, the third of the kids that enter a school of some deficit have changed, but what I think now, I’m speaking personally, is that what we saw as an educational problem was secondarily an educational problem. Really, it was an income inequality problem. That we have not overcome.

Lloyd Morrisett: I’d say one other things here, Ed. Where I live now in California, I see many Spanish background children and several have told me they learned English from Sesame Street. That wasn’t one of our goals, but children that are motivated can find something to learn and Sesame Street offers a lot of possibilities.

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Sunny Days Lesson Set

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In November 2019, Sesame Street celebrated its 50th anniversary of being on television. The original concept of the show was simple: using television to teach young children. Specifically, the show’s creators wanted to help young, disadvantaged children who were at risk of struggling in school. Sesame Street has evolved over these fifty years, but the show’s core objective remains the same. Though income inequality has remained a significant problem in the United States, Sesame Street remains steadfast in providing equal educational opportunities for children.

As the audience for Sesame Street has grown, the show has used its characters to embody the values of multiculturalism and diversity. The show has incorporated characters with autism, HIV, and physical disabilities to provide children with relatable examples of people different from themselves. They have also embraced different cultures, languages, races, and ethnicities, giving children opportunities to see themselves in the lives of puppets. As a result, Sesame Street has become a global phenomenon with variations of the show existing in countries across the world.

This lesson focuses on the history of Sesame Street and its value in promoting diversity and multiculturalism. Using a segment about Rosita, a longstanding bilingual character, students will examine how the show explores issues of identity and diversity.