Come And Play: 'Sesame Street' Celebrates 40 Years

40th anniversary cast of 'Sesame Street' i i

hide captionThe new season of Sesame Street begins on Nov. 10. The show is celebrating its 40th anniversary by launching an entirely new "block" format, complete with a new opening sequence.

Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop
40th anniversary cast of 'Sesame Street'

The new season of Sesame Street begins on Nov. 10. The show is celebrating its 40th anniversary by launching an entirely new "block" format, complete with a new opening sequence.

Richard Termine/Sesame Workshop

When first lady Michelle Obama popped in on Sesame Street to hang out with Elmo, Big Bird and some kids, she came to demonstrate one of her pet projects: how to plant your own vegetable garden. Her point was that from very small seeds, some delicious and wonderful things can grow. And in TV terms, Sesame Street 40 years ago was one of those seeds — and it has ended up feeding many generations of young viewers.

On Nov. 10, 1969, when we first heard the theme to Sesame Street, public television itself was a new and largely unproven entity. There was no cable TV then, no Fox — by and large, just three commercial networks and, in each TV market, a local station or two. Children's television wasn't very regulated, and certainly, by the end of the 1960s, wasn't very good. Sesame Street, with its simple mandate of educating children as it entertained them, changed all that.

We live in such a different technological world now that one of the basic principles of Sesame Street has been, quite recently, overthrown. Sesame Street was available to any family, no matter how poor, so long as it had electricity and a TV set. Tune in, and even the most disadvantaged preschooler could learn his or her ABCs and count to 10 and begin attending school without feeling left behind.

Today, that's no longer true. TV signals are relayed digitally — and poorer families, without digital converters for their TV sets, no longer have access to the Sesame Street neighborhood.

Those who can see Sesame Street today, though, will see something very different from 40 years ago, or even from last year. The show is packaged in modules now, like a preschool Today show, and its theme song has been rearranged to sound more modern. This year, in addition, some of the Muppets have gone digital in an even bigger way. Abby Cadabby, a young fairy in training, is seen in adventures that present her not as a flesh-and-blood Muppet — well, foam-and-fabric, anyway — but as a computer-generated CGI cartoon. And when Elmo is at his own computer, he watches Grover, leading a frog hunt in an intentional approximation of a YouTube video short.

I note these changes, but I'm not complaining about them. Instead, I'm reassured by the show's many still-familiar elements. The 40th-anniversary hour of Sesame Street still has a cameo by Kermit the Frog, and lengthy sketches that adults in the room are much more likely to laugh at than kids. The show is still brought to us by letters — this one is sponsored by the letter H, and one of the key words is "habitat." And after all these decades, Sesame Street is a habitat that continues to attract some very watchable visitors — not only Michelle Obama and Cameron Diaz, who are in the opener, but others down the road. Me, I can't wait for Ricky Gervais.

The delivery system may be different, the packaging may be different, even the content and theme song may be different. But Sesame Street, four decades later, is the same happy neighborhood it always was.

David Bianculli writes for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches television and film at Rowan University.

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