Monday, November 9, 2009

Media: Sesame Street Turns 40

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Today, the media world is abuzz with recollections of the fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago, and this is my 500th blog post, so it seemed obvious what I should write about. However, I'm going to take my cue from Google, which has been running special banners for the past few days, and instead write about the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street, which premiered on 10 November 1969.

I grew up with the Children's Television Network's Sesame Street, watching it as early as I can remember. At the time, KCTS Channel 9 in Seattle, the local PBS affiliate, ran it in the afternoon, right before Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I think it aired at 3 pm, so the hour-long show was over before my father came home from work.

There probably isn't a single aspect of basic skills (from counting to the alphabet to vocabulary) or culture that I didn't learn more about from Sesame Street. This was educational television at its finest. Originally targeted a four-year olds, I'm sure I started watching before then, and I know I was still watching the show long after that age. Even if I had learned most of what they were teaching, the narrative story lines and the characters were so compelling that I remained glued to the television set when it was on.

Every child that watched Sesame Street probably chose a favorite character. Mine was Snuffleupagus, a woolly mammoth-like imaginary friend of Big Bird. I'm not sure why I liked Snuffy, perhaps it was simply that he looked rather like a dinosaur. I'm sure that Snuffy was the inspiration for the cast of imaginary friends that I made up and abandoned over the years. I have to admit that I was quite disappointed to read that Snuffy had been proven real in the television series after I stopped watching, apparently out of fears that adults not believing Big Bird when he talked about Snuffy would make kids think that adults would not believe them if they talked about being abused.

I didn't think much of Oscar the Grouch, but I have to admit that this recent Garbage News Network skit with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Dan Rather-Not, Walter Cranky, and Oscar was absolutely hilarious.

Like many children of the era, the Sesame Street show I remember most distinctly was the show about the death of Mr. Hooper. Apparently Will Lee had died of a heart attack on 7 December 1982, and the episode in which they talk about his death did not air until 24 November 1983, but as a kid it seemed like the two could not have been more than a week apart. I didn't really understand death even after that episode, but it did have a very similar feeling to the days of actual deaths in the family that I had experienced.

Sesame Street may be targeted at three-year olds, be more dominated by Elmo than Big Bird, and air in the early morning now, but it still may be the single most influential television show on who I am today, and that may be true of many people around the world. That's truly amazing.

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