"If you got it, flaunt it."
WHEN A STREET BECOMES A FREEWAY
Sesame Street’s rousing first season success opens numerous options. Children’s Television Workshop is realizing that the only one educational series directed to preschoolers is like creating an arm without the whole body. It is just not enough. Why, they asked, in the two years when the preschooler finds himself in kindergarten and beyond must he bid CTW’s kind of educational TV goodbye, so long forever? Why couldn’t CTW grow up and out with the child?
“That’s a dream we’re working on,” Lloyd Morrisett prophesies about one of the new projects. “It should take about ten years. But with the development of cable TV, I hope to see at least one network across the country devoted exclusively to children.”
It then follows—why limit it to this country? Why not Sesame Street in France, Italy, Japan, around the world? Children learn letters and numbers and alphabets in other countries. They may not sound the same or be written the same way. But why not a Sesame Strada with Julia, Nina, Carlo and Luca and the merry puppets Pinocchio and Pulcinella? A foreign language adaptation of Sesame Street is possible…and probable, now that Michael H. Dann, the commercial network senior vice president who gave up a huge income and all kinds of pensions for the satisfaction of being where the action is, is overseer of the overseas CTW operations. This year more than 20 countries will see the English version of Sesame Street and plans are underway for foreign language versions to be filmed abroad.
The shows seen nationally in the 1969-1970 season are being televised in their original form in countries where English is a dominant language or taught as a second language. Thirty-eight stations associated with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation began showing Sesame Street last fall. Australia and New Zealand started its Sesame run in January. Arrangements are being made for a commercial outlet in Britain, Scotland and Ireland. The Caribbean Islands—Bermuda, Trinidad, Tobago, Antigua, Martinique, Curacao, Jamaica, Barbados and Aruba—mix Sesame Street with their tropical days. In addition, the Armed Forces Radio and Television Network has picked up Sesame Street for its worldwide circuit of 66 stations among them Ethiopia, Iran, South Korea, Iceland and Greece.
The foreign language version of the series will be produced separately, Mr. Dann says. The first of them—probably Spanish and filmed in Latin America—will go before the cameras this spring. But they will definitely not be written, produced and cast from New York. “We are convinced,” Dann says, “that the series cannot be adapted by simply dubbing a foreign language sound-track as it is done with situation comedies and other American TV exports.” Dann’s reference here is to what happens to a TV show like Bonanaza. Imagine “Hoss” and “Ben Cartwright” played by Don Blocker and Lorne Greene in the original Ponderosa setting. But when the Cartwrights open their mouths Japanese spills forth. This is the incongruity Sesame Street producers hope to avoid.
Dann explains, “The workshop is anxious that their foreign language editions portray local situations and circumstances. Thus, these versions will use foreign locales, actors, filmmakers, animators and producers, with the workshop providing technical support where necessary.” Sounds like a Sesame Street Peace Corps is underway.
With all its circling-of-the-globe, you would think that Children’s Television Workshop was a mammoth operation, hectic and intense. Instead it is a low-key operation tucked away on the ninth floor of the (would you believe?) American Bible Society building in the car-showroom center of Manhattan. There is the usual run of colt-legged secretaries, coffee wagons, tweedy carpeting. Sesame Street learning sheets are scotchtaped to the wall. Posters, bearing Peace Corps recruiting slogans and peace symbols, are also taped to the white antiseptic walls. In brief, CTW has the look of just having moved in—which indeed it has—and of being able to pick up and leave instantly—which it will, when its permanent offices near Lincoln Center are completed.
But it was at CTW’s transitional address that Joan Cooney made further announcements of the Workshop’s future. At a news conference (participants included McGeorge Bundy, president of the Ford Foundation; Alan Pifer, president of the Carnegie Corporation; John Macy, president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; and Dr. James Gallagher, deputy assistant secretary of HEW) Mrs. Cooney announced that Children’s Television Workshop was severing its ties with National Education Television to become an independent corporation with herself as president and Lloyd Morrisett, James Day (President of NET) and Dr. Gerald Lesser as some of the officers.
Originally CTW joined NET because of the federal government preferred an established organization to receive funds. The move to independence, Morrisett explained was done “because the Workshop is more than a broadcast organization, and its major commitment to educational research puts its needs and concerns in a broader context which cannot be adequately met by anything other than an administrative organization devoted solely to these issues.” Morrisett also emphasized that the move did not mean the workshop would be abandoning public television. “We will use the facilities of the newly-formed Public Broadcasting Service to distribute our programs to non-commercial stations,” although he did add “the workshop also will continue to use commercial stations when either no public TV outlet exists or where particular schedule or signal problems prevent us from reaching the largest possible audience of children.”
Then, echoing the sentiments of the people involved with CTW, Morrisett concluded: “One season, no matter how successful, is only a beginning in harnessing the powers of television to the purpose of education. We believe that this new structure will better enable the workshop to fulfill its commitment to provide programs that are entertaining and educational.”
In line with this Mrs. Cooney revealeed the creation of a writer’s workshop at Sesame Street to provide a type of fellowship for talented young people who can develop their skills at the Children’s Television Workshop and in turn make contributions to the program. They would recruit some of these writers from minority groups.
The writers, six in number, began an intensive training program last fall. Typical of the group is Joe Seneca—Black, in his early 30’s—who was recommended to CTW by his playwrighting teacher at The New School for Social Research. At first the trainees merely observed all the different components of Children’s Television Workshop, including the research and utilization departments. Having done this, they are now writing contributions for the puppet, animation, taped and filmed sequences. There are also plans for them to travel around the country to get the “feel” first-hand of how Sesame Street material is received in different geographical areas.
Also in the works is a second Sesame Street-type of program. This one is beamed at the grade-school child, ages 7 to 10, which should debut in the fall of 1971. The skill concerned with in this show is reading.
Sam Gibbon is in charge of putting together the proposed half-hour daily reading series. The aim will be twofold: to formulate a curriculum that teaches reading specifically for television and to create a positive learning experience for the child who has been unsuccessfully taught reading in school.
“If these fresh attempts are as successful as Sesame Street in capturing the attention and enthusiasm of the young people of America,” James E. Allen, former United States Commissioner of Education commented about CTW’s plans, “our national campaign to assure by the end of the 1970’s that no boy or girl will leave school without the skill and the desire to read to the utmost of his capacity will be off to a great start.”
Sesame Street, with its endless caravan of projects and inspirations hurtling along at an even faster rate, is clearly becoming a Freeway.