The classic children's television show Sesame Street maintains the mission, as its motto says, to help kids become "smarter, stronger, kinder." Now not quite at its half-century mark, the company behind the show wants to claim a fourth characteristic for itself: quicker.
On Friday morning, the not-for-profit educational company Sesame Workshop launched Sesame Studios, a new channel that lives not on television but online — on YouTube. The idea is to create new content swiftly and inexpensively, reaching children where they consume media, just like adults, on smartphones, tablets and computers.
Sesame Studios offers original digital shorts, lasting from 30 seconds to five minutes apiece. There will be no puppets — nary an Elmo nor Abby Cadabby in sight. Instead, Sesame Studios is ushering in a wave of new digital characters, segments and songs intended to educate and entertain. NPR received a sneak peak ahead of the launch.
"It's just part of the rebirth and transformation. We don't want to just be a one-trick pony," says Sesame Workshop President and CEO Jeffrey Dunn. "We need to expand the intellectual property. We need to figure out how different kids engage. All of that suggests that opening the doors to new creators [and] new content is the way to go."
The Sesame Street YouTube channel celebrating the original show and cast of characters has enjoyed plenty of success, with 2 million subscribers and more than a billion views a year. (By contrast, Nickelodeon has 788,000 YouTube subscribers, while PBS Kids draws 73,000.) The Sesame Street channel isn't going away. It will carry the Studios' shorts and also promote its sister channel.
Instead of Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Grover, however, Sesame Studios boasts a jovial, digitally animated host, Marvie, who emcees each week's new playlist; "Words with Puffballs," featuring colorful animated creatures who look as though they've been conjured from cotton candy; and musical numbers centering on The Totems, an endearing menagerie of bouncing digital boxes and pegs that share lessons on life and family.
"We're trying to be really nimble," says Kay Wilson Stallings, Sesame Workshop's senior vice president for creative development. "We want to be able to have this ability to make content pretty quickly, but at the same time we are not compromising on the quality."
Stallings says what takes months or a year on television can consume days or a few months at most for digital fare.
The project, revealed publicly on Thursday night at a presentation by YouTube for digital advertisers, has been developed in stealth, with word-of-mouth recruitment. Stallings drew upon talent from diverse sources: small production shops, in-house animators, even an advertising agency.
But executives at Sesame Studios say they are hoping for a little digital stardom to rub off, too. Stallings tapped Todrick Hall, a former American Idol contestant who has become a viral video sensation, to draft the theme song for Sesame Studios. Hall's previous videos often combine a sly affection for touchstones of childhood, such as Disney and big Broadway musicals, with somewhat racy themes.
Stallings said Hall nailed the assignment — the second time around.
"Honestly, the first pass at the song wasn't great," Stallings recalled. "He thought, because it was for kids, that we were looking for this very saccharine-y, very gentle, very cliche piece of music. And we were like, 'No, Todrick, we want you. We want the kind of music that you do to appeal to the kids and their millennial parents.' "
Hall has more than 2 million subscribers to his YouTube page.
Sesame Workshop has arrived at an inflection point in history, affecting its business model, its delivery mechanism and its creative process. Early this year, Sesame Workshop struck a deal with HBO, giving the premium cable channel first right to air its newest shows in exchange for an infusion of money to pay for them.
"One thing Sesame has consistently and effectively done from their beginning 46 years ago was to really harness new media and technology and new formats in every generation," said Malik Ducard, the global head of family and learning at YouTube.
Back in the 1970s, Sesame Street reached between 5 and 6 million preschoolers each week on PBS stations.
Four decades on, Sesame Street reaches just as many kids from 2 to 5 years old — but across all platforms. That includes public television, HBO, video on demand, streaming, the Sesame website and apps.
"The beauty about the YouTube platform — we kind of say the goals are as high but the stakes are lower," said Steve Youngwood, chief operating officer of Sesame Workshop. "We get many more chances to iterate and experiment. And in true digital fashion, we know not everything is going to work."
Youngwood said the company's creative executives and educational analysts will rely on YouTube's extensive data analysis to inform their choices. The ability to shift gears, he said, is a draw for talent.
"It's really excited people internally, really excited the creative community that we now have a new canvas and a new outlet to innovate and engage kids and to educate them," Youngwood said.
Like other YouTube channels, Sesame Studios will rely on advertisers. The insurance company UnitedHealthcare will sponsor the digital channel, at least at first. Sesame Workshop officials say the spots will target parents, not kids, and will resemble public broadcasting underwriting messages rather than hard-sale commercials.
"You can create an unbelievable amount of content for YouTube for the cost of an hour of television," said Dunn, the CEO. "We have to be a sustainable organization, and we believe there is a sustainable model for us to be there for the long term.
"We believe that YouTube is going to be for this generation a lot like PBS is for prior generations," Dunn said. "It is going to be where kids congregate and get access to media at some of their earlier stages."