"Holy Vocabulary! An educational show that’s a Hit!"


Anecdotes about Sesame Street are just about endless. Here are some of them:

In Pennsylvania a youngster nagged her mother until she finally bought her a trash can. She just wanted to sit in it—the way Oscar does on the show—while she watched Sesame Street.

A mother from Alabama reported her son was so interested in Sesame Street it was interfering with his toilet training.

In New Jersey a 3-year-old boy burst into his parents’ bedroom in the middle of the night, shouting and clutching his pillow. His parents woke with a start thinking: An accident! But the child was shouting: “Mommy! Daddy! My pillow, it’s a rectangle!”

In Michigan a 2-year-old whose verbalizing consisted of grunts and groans was heard actually singing a song. Her grip on the melody was shaky, but the words came out pearshaped: “One of these things is not like the other, one of these is just not the same….”

Some of the stories are even more poignant:

An 80-year-old great-grandmother, who came to the United States from Russia, could never learn to read until she saw Sesame Street. Watching the show with her small great grand-daughter, Bubba mastered the alphabet and is now beginning to read.

In Illinois, a Head Start director related: “Black children in my class feel very good about seeing so many Black children on the show. One of my boys said, ‘Look at the Black boy, he knows all the right answers.’ The children seem delighted that the Black children are so smart.”

A Maine mother said her 3-year-old daughter, after watching Sesame Street a few times remarked, “Susan and Gordon are bad people. They’re different from us. Their hair and skin are all funny.” Sometime later the child recanted, “Mommy, Susan and Gordon aren’t really funny or bad. Now I know them and every day they make me feel happy inside.”

Waves of ecstacy and enthusiasm for Sesame Street were felt all across the country. All that Children’s Television Workshop hoped for in the way of public acceptance in its first year came true—and more. Looking back on Sesame Street’s early television beginnings, Joan Cooney says, “ I never feared monumental failure for the series, but I did think the response would be far more mixed. I expected TV critics and parents to like and dig it. But I thought educators would get on it. Instead—publicity at least—they’ve been as enthusiastic as the parents and critics.”

Legions of Sesame Street boosters sprang up overnight. The show was carried each weekday by nearly 200 television stations from Maine to American Samoa. In about 100 communities the program was seen both in the morning and late afternoon. It became such a rollicking entertainment asset that commercial stations vied to run it as a “public service.” In New York alone, the hour-long show was seen on five channels, six times a day. There was practically no time in a child’s waking hours that he couldn’t flick on the TV and find Sesame Street. In Chicago, showing on a public TV station, Sesame Street topped such formidable competition for daytime viewing as the Beverly Hillbillies, Concentration, a movie and an exercise show. This phenomenon caused show business bible Variety to banner-headline: “SESAME TAKES ALL—This is probably the first time anywhere that an educational television station has topped the commercial competition.”

In conservative, staid Boston, the educational TV station that carried the show was deluged with 13,000 calls and 7,000 letters of appreciation the first week it aired! While in Detroit the viewers were so enthusiastic they contributed an extra 450,000 to educational TV station WTV simply as a thank you for broadcasting Sesame Street.

The residents of Sesame Street become well known among children and adults alike. So much so that when lanky, beaky Peter Janssen resigned as Newsweek’s education editor to join NET, almost everyone at his farewell party got the joke when it was announced that he had been signed to play Big Bird.

CTW’s 8-million dollar experiment was unquestionably making its point: the programming techniques of commercial TV, so long known to capture young minds simply to entertain or to sell to them, could be employed just as effectively to hold their interest while educating them.

At the end of Sesame Street’s first season it was time for a report card—telling how the show was doing on all levels.

When it came to receiving awards, no prize pupil ever did better. Sesame Street received television’s coveted George Foster Peabody Award for “meritorious service to broadcasting.” The citation from the Henry W. Grady School of Journalism of the University of Georgia which administers the awards, praised the series for demonstrating “What thoughtful, creative educators are doing for tomorrow’s leadership.” Sesame also scooped up a fistful of Emmy Awards for the 1969-1970 season, and its Public Relations Department received the Silver Anvil Award, highest donor in the public relations field.

But what CTW was most interested in was the achievement side of the report card. Early studies suggested the show was achieving its limited but quite specific goals. For example, Dr. Palmer says, “When we defined our goals in the seminars, one of them was: ‘If a child is shown a rectangle, he can supply its name.’ Nothing ambiguous about that. But nothing easy about it, either, if you’re three years old. I have a nephew who got ‘circle,’ ‘square,’ and ‘triangle’—but instead of ‘rectangle’, he said ‘refrigerator.’ He knew it was some big word that started with an R.”

In January 1970, the workshop revealed the results of two important preliminary surveys. The first, an impact study, focused on the learning gains of a group of 130 preschoolers from predominantly low-income homes in Tennessee, Long Island, and Maine. Half the children were Sesame Street viewers, half were non-viewers; both groups were divided about equally racially. Dr. Palmer termed the results of the learning tests as “dramatic” and the overall level as “impressive.” They found that children who watched Sesame Street regularly in its first six weeks made gains two-and-one half times as great as the gains made by those who were not exposed to the show. One result that Dr. Palmer found particularly dramatic was the learning gains made in letter recognition. The letter W had been featured regularly on the early shows through frequent repetition of the 1-minute cartoon spots animated by Tee Collins. Before the W spot was used, one out of four children in the viewing group could correctly name the letter W. Six weeks later, their number doubled. Yet there was no gain in recognition among the control group of nonviewers.

Similarly substantial increases were also made in the experimental group’s ability to solve simple logic, sorting classification and enumeration problems. In one particularly tough test, each child was shown a page with three related objects, small shoes in a case, and on another page they were shown more pictures of shoes, three of them large and one small. Asked to choose the object most closely related to those on the first page, the regular Sesame Street viewers showed a gain of 26 percent in their ability to find the right answer, while the nonviewers mustered a meager gain of only 3 percent.

The other early survey began sketching in the answer to the important question, was Sesame Street reaching the kids it was intended for? Was its target audience from the inner-city and rural poverty areas tuned in?

A.C. Nielson, the well-known survey company, could measure the viewing habits of the middle-class. They did this one week in December, 1969 and found that 2.2 million homes watching at least part of the show each day. Using the rater’s formula for numbers of viewers per set and adding an estimate for the numbers of group viewers in preschool programs such as nursery schools, the workshop theorized a daily viewing audience of between five and six million children. Not bad for a show that was introduced a month before. But the figure was still far short of the number of children who were lapping up the major network cartoon shows on Saturday morning.

The viewing habits of the poor, however, cold not easily be market-researched by such an organization as the Nielson people. To find out how Sesame Street was doing in the ghettos, CTW’s utilization division went into action. They sent questionnaires to day-care center directors asking them to poll their children. The first 150 centers to reply, reporting on some 2,400 inner-city preschoolers, came back with the whooping tally that four out of five children were fans, with the only real limitation being the availability of television sets either in the home or in the day-care center.

The vast majority of preschool day care directors reported positive effects on their children in learning the alphabet, numbers, shapes and the child’s feelings about himself and others the world around him. In many such day-care and Head Start programs, Sesame Street was already becoming an integral part of the curriculum. After assembling their children to watch all or part of the series the teachers would spend some time in school helping the children elaborate on what they had seen on the show.

Head Start director Pat Martinex of the program at the Goddard-Riverside Community Center in Manhattan’s West Side, talked about Sesame Street’s influence on her group: “It’s been wonderful. Sesame Street has become a terribly important force in planning our program. Two-thirds of the children take home the Parent Teacher guides provided by the Children’s Television Workshop. They tape them to the wall next to the television set and watch Sesame Street all over again in the late afternoon!”

Visitors to the Goddard-Riverside Community Center became aware immediately of Sesame Street’s influence. Most of the older students know their letters—and in the right order. They can also write them. One child is extremely close to real reading. A knowledge of “economics” and number use is also demonstrated: three children acting out “buying” and “selling” use play money, plastic fruit and a counter (which looks suspiciously like a child’s ironing board) all in the style of Mr. Hooper’s candy store.

In March an in-depth study of 500 families in New York’s low-income Bedford-Stuyvesant area was conducted for the Workshop by the Daniel Yankelovich public-opinion polling firm. Their findings: 90 percent of the children between the ages of 2 and 5 who spend their days at home rather than in day-care centers or nursery schools watch Sesame Street. Even more promising, half of the children switched the set on themselves each day without waiting for prompting or help from their elders. This survey results represent almost total saturation.