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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This morning on Sesame Street the number of the day is

Unidentified Group: Forty.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of screaming)

Unidentified Woman: Thats a huge number. How many is 40?

INSKEEP: It takes some explaining, but I can say that 40 years ago today, Sesame Street aired its first episode. The last 4,186 shows have taught kids their numbers and letters, but we wanted to find out what lessons the producers and performers on Sesame Street have learned. So we sent NPRs Robert Smith out to the neighborhood.

ROBERT SMITH: Sesame Street was always considered an experiment.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: The first show opened in 1969 with this space age synthesizer music and a question: Could kids actually learn anything from a television set?

(Soundbite of music, Sesame Street theme song)

Ms. CAROL-LYNN PARENTE (Executive Producer): The one thing about Sesame Street that hasnt changed in 40 years is that we still call it an experiment in childrens television.

SMITH: Carol-Lynn Parente is the executive producer of Sesame Street.

(Soundbite of music, Sesame Street theme song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Sunny days, sweeping our clouds away

SMITH: This year producers once again added new characters, rearranged the show and jazzed up that theme.

(Soundbite of music, Sesame Street theme song)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) how to get to Sesame Street? Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

SMITH: Parente says numbers and letters never change, but getting kids to learn them takes constant tweaking. So what has the Sesame Street team learned? Lets count.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

SMITH: Lesson number

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) One.

SMITH: Children are much more adaptable than once thought. Originally, the monsters were not going to interact with humans on Sesame Street.

Ms. LOUISE GIKOW (Author, Sesame Street: 40 Years of Life on the Street): At the time, educators were concerned that if, in fact, you were on the street with human characters and trying to teach something and Muppets appeared, there would be a mix-up between what was considered to be fantasy and reality and that children would have difficulty adjusting to that.

SMITH: Louise Gikow wrote the new book, Sesame Street: 40 Years of Life on the Street. She says that when they test marketed the show, they found the exact opposite. Kids paid more attention when the Muppets talked, which brings us to lesson number

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Two.

SMITH: A good Muppet character takes time to grow.

Mr. CAROLL SPINNEY (Voice Actor, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch): Im Carol Spinney. For 40 years, Ive been playing Big Bird.

(As Big Bird) Hello.

And Oscar the Grouch.

(As Oscar the Grouch) Get away from me.

And hes never liked me, Oscar.

SMITH: Theres a sweetness to the Muppets now, so its hard to believe that in the beginning they felt raw, even scary. Oscar seemed meaner. Big Bird was a big dope.

Mr. SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) Hello, Gordon. He talked like that the first show.

SMITH: The key for all Muppets was finding that human character inside. Spinneys realization was that Big Bird wasnt stupid. He was a six-year-old.

Mr. SPINNEY: Hes sort of a surrogate child. He learned the alphabet along with the kids at home.

SMITH: And as for Oscar? Thats lesson number

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) (Singing) Three, three, three, three. Lets sing along with three.

SMITH: Oscar was orange in the first season. Cookie Monster once had teeth. If a character feels real, then kids can accept the changes. Speaking of Cookie, lets have him help with lesson number

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Four.

Unidentified Man #1: (as Cookie Monster) Cookie starts with C. Lets think of other things that start with C.

SMITH: How about the word competition?

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BOB WEST (Actor): (as Barney) (Singing) I love you.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. KATHLEEN HERLES (Actor): (as Dora) Go.

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Dora, Dora, Dora the Explorer.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PAT PINNEY (Actor): (Singing) SpongeBob SquarePants.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: It was getting crowded in childrens TV. Sesame Street had to adapt.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. KEVIN CLASH (Actor): (as Elmo) (Singing) Yo, MC Elmos got something to say about the Sesames number for today. Its a number were picking, and thats no jive. Its cool, its hip, its fresh and five.

SMITH: Lesson five: Freshen up. Elmo played a big part in brightening Sesame Street, but another change could be seen on the street itself.

Mr. SPINNEY: Ive lived 40 years in this lovely, classy part of the neighborhood.

SMITH: Caroll Spinney shows me around the set. It still has that urban New York vibe. But back when I watched the program, the street was darker. There was graffiti, and you could hear these cars rushing by.

Looking at the early episodes, the current set looks so much cleaner. It looks like they cleaned up the neighborhood a little bit.

Mr. SPINNEY: It looked more grungy, and frankly, I loved it grungy.

SMITH: Well, much like the city of New York, its been gentrified a little bit, cleaned up?

Mr. SPINNEY: Yes, yes. I think the whole country has come up that way.

SMITH: But Spinney promises me Oscar will never be moved to a recycling bin. Of course, Sesame Street has made mistakes before. Now, where were we in that count of lessons learned by Sesame Street over the last 40 years?

Unidentified Child #1: Six.

Unidentified Child #2: Six.

Unidentified Child #3: Im six. Im six. Im six years old today. Yay!

SMITH: Ah, yes, six: learning from mistakes.

In 1994, Sesame Street sprawled. They built new part of the neighborhood around the corner from the old street and added tons of new characters and Ruth Buzzi.

Ms. RUTH BUZZI (Comedian, Actor): Today, were going to cook up one of my favorite things in the whole wide world: The number six.

SMITH: But author Louise Gikow says it was too confusing.

Ms. GIKOW: So they pulled back on the characters and went back to the street.

SMITH: Sesame Street was learning to keep it simple.

Mr. JERRY NELSON (Actor): (as Count von Count) Seven! Seven cookies.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SMITH: At the number seven slot: a lesson about children.

Mr. ROSEMARY TRUGLIO (Head of Research, Sesame Street) They love a narrative.

SMITH: Rosemary Truglio is in charge of research at Sesame Street. She says the early show was modeled after fast-paced variety shows like Laugh-In. But kids, with their VCRs and DVDs, were developing a longer attention span.

Ms. TRUGLIO: And we were breaking up the narrative in these little skits and interrupting it with the lessons about letters and numbers and sharing and brushing your teeth instead of having the children experience the narrative as a 15-minute story.

SMITH: These days, Sesame Street has a more regimented pace. Theres a long story out on the street, then mini shows: Ernie and Bert get their 10 minutes, Elmo gets his 15. It turns out its calm and predictable for the younger audience that Sesame Street is drawing these days. No more getting distracted by a chef on a staircase.

(Soundbite of TV show, Sesame Street)

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #2: A raspberry pudding dessert.

SMITH: And our last lesson, number 8: pushing the envelope.

This season, Ernie and Bert are presented in claymation. The fairy, Abby Cadabby, is computer generated.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: It is downright shocking for parents who grew up with the real furry puppets who want the new Sesame Street to be like the one they watched. But researchers say that children barely notice. The characters are real to them, whatever the format, and perhaps that can be our bonus lesson from the 40-year experiment called Sesame Street. The children are always right.

Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.

(Soundbite of music, Sesame Street theme song)

INSKEEP: Its MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renees back with us tomorrow. Im Steve Inskeep.

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