"Sesame Street is probably the most thoroughly researched, tested and studied program in television history."
--Dr. Edward Palmer, Research Director, CTW
FROM WATTS TO WESTCHESTER
Although adults dictated what to teach on Sesame Street, the children had the final word on how to teach. The responsibility for the “kiddy testing” each prospective Sesame Street segment was entrusted to Research Director Edward Palmer, who did not treat his trust lightly. He says, “To understand the shaping of Sesame Street is to understand the nature of the preschool audience. It is relatively difficult to sustain the interest of young children, as parents and others who have worked with them know. Thus, to capture their attention and hold it for a full hour, day after day and week after week, was a formidable assignment.
“Preschoolers, we found, are highly selective. They do not retain an interest in a television show on a program-to-program basis, but rather on a moment-to-moment basis. The young child posts an extremely sensitive guard that signals whether adult or child television fare is coming up. This is primarily an auditory monitoring that functions when the child is anywhere within earshot of a television set. Because of this television savvy, we had to devise ways of motivating young children of all backgrounds—the middle class of Westchester as well as the disadvantaged of Watts—to watch Sesame Street. Our task was particularly challenging because our audience was neither physically present nor captive, but rather ‘out there.’ Even if placed before the set by a mother, preschoolers still have clear options to watch the entire program or portions of it, to turn to another channel, to turn off the set altogether.”
The first thing Dr. Palmer’s researchers did was to examine existing children’s material films and television programs—to see what captured and sustained the interest of preschoolers. They learned that their best chance to reach a young child would be with material clearly built for him, material that drew heavily on such proven winners as animated cartoons, puppets, and other children and animals.
How did a 3-year-old, wrestling with his first phrases, let Dr. Palmer know what interested him? In essence this work involved watching children while they watch the television screen. Reaction gauging was done in day-care nurseries, Head Start centers, in private homes throughout the country, and at the Workshop’s New York headquarters.
“The children we used for our first appeal studies were all poor children in day-care centers,” says Mrs. Cooney, “but it turned out that all preschoolers have pretty much the same concerns—and they’re all conditioned by the same television shows: Batman, Get Smart, Laugh-In.”
One of the favorite devices to determine if a child is fully engrossed with what he is viewing is the “distractor.” The distractor, sort of a slide projector, is set up at right angles to the television set and slide pictures are periodically flashed on it to try to shift the child’s attention from the TV screen. If the child watching Sesame Street on the TV was easily distracted, it was a tip-off that the material being shown was not sufficiently absorbing.
“But since out purpose is to teach as well as entertain,” Dr. Palmer explains, “extensive pretesting was also necessary to make certain that every program segment succeeded in conveying the information for which it was intended.”
After a proposed Sesame Street segment was shown, the researchers questioned the children to determine whether or not the educational message was also getting through. “Sometimes we found the children having a delightful time watching a segment, but when it was over, they still didn’t recognize the letter or the number we were trying to teach them,” says Dr. Palmer. “Fortunately, through this sort of pre-testing we were able to make necessary changes before the material was exposed to the viewing audience.”
In the winter of 1968, the first piece of original material created for Sesame Street was subjected to the judgments of the “ultimate consumers.” The snippet of film, one minute out of a projected 130 hours of programming, was an animated cartoon designed to teach the letter J.
Two round-faced small boys are shown talking when the letter J appears from the top of the screen. As they contemplate the letter, one of the boys says it looks like a fish hook. But a voice off screen immediately tells them it is the letter J and then asks them if they would like to hear a story about it. A rhythmic nonsense jingle that capitalizes the appeal of absurdities follows:
“Once upon a time a guy named Joe
Noticed a June Bug on his toe
Put in a jar and started to go
But here come the Judge and said, ‘No, no, no.’
And danced a jig on an old tree stump
And jogged along to the city dump
Where he jammed the June bug in a tire pump.
And the Judge caught up and started to wail,
Said to Joe, ‘Justice will prevail.’
And the Jury met and set the bail
And Joe got an hour in the city jail.”
The moral of this story any 4-year-old can guess—“Don’t jive a Judge by jamming a June Bug.”
The J Spot, as it came to be called, was gingerly carried over to a day-care center a few blocks from CTW’s Manhattan offices, just south of Lincoln Center, and showed under carefully controlled circumstances to an ad hoc panel of preschoolers. The jingle was randomly spliced into an hour-long children’s program, much as a TV commercial would be.
Two of the groups were shown the J Spot once, two others viewed it three times and still another two groups watched it six times. With the aid of specially prepared questionnaires, the research team was able for the first time to validate with confidence three of the project’s early concepts: children can learn letters and numbers kinesthetically by film animation; commercial spot methods of getting attention of preschoolers is effective because kids are programmed for commercial interruption; and repetition pays off because youngsters can absorb tremendous amounts of repetition. The groups that saw the J Spot six times were, in fact, able to reproduce the letter J themselves on verbal command and were also able to identify it among other letters. The J Spot showed the researchers they were on the right track.
Dr. Palmer elaborates about the findings: “In testing the J Spot, we found that as few as four or five repetitions an hour during regular children’s programming established one hundred percent recognition of the letter J. We also confirmed what we had already suspected from watching children view commercials; namely, they were not bored by the repetition. On the contrary, some tried to repeat the jingle after hearing it for the second third time. However, in experimenting with a shorter version of the jingle, we found the children were even more responsive and willing to repeat the words. This suggested the spot had value for the words. This suggested the spot had value for children who learn quickly and want to go beyond more recognition of the letter, which was the basic aim of the cartoon. Further research also suggested that if young children actually participate in a jingle such as the J spot, or are otherwise involved with some element of a program, they tend to learn more.”
From the J Spot and five subsequent one-hour “test” shows, the researchers gleaned some interesting, and surprising, findings. They expected to find a strong interest in cartoons, and this was overwhelmingly substantiated. But what they did not anticipate was that many preschoolers were fascinated by a technique known as “pixilation.” In this technique, frames in the motion picture film strip are deleted so that the image moves in a fast, jerky fashion.
The researchers also discovered that a young child’s reaction to the appearance of performers well-known to adult audiences was unpredictable. Broadway actor James Earl Jones’ bald head set the youngsters off into gales of giggling and exclaiming, “Look how bald he is.” But, by the time Jones had gotten halfway through his deliberate dead-pan recitation of the ABCs, the sub-first graders were shouting out the letters along with him.
In another instance, a group of preschoolers watching a Sesame segment featuring Bill Cosby of "I Spy" fame persisted in identifying him with that program. Instead of accepting his solo performance, they kept waiting for his "I Spy" partner to appear.
Voice and mannerisms of a performer were obviously important to the young child. Many children were distracted and puzzled when an attractive film star with a naturally husky voice read a story. When she first appeared on the television set, the children appeared delighted and expectant. But as she began to read in her throaty voice, they asked, “What is wrong, is she sick?”
Advance research also brought a quick death to those segments that failed to please—even when it was a creator’s favorite piece of material, such as the ill-fated Man from Alphabet. This spoof of the spy genre portrayed the Man from Alphabet as a bumbling antihero in a trenchcoat, whose antagonists were the arch illiterates Digby Dropout and his assistant Dunce. In a typical episode, Man from Alphabet gets orders from his boss, “Teacher,” and heads directly for a newsstand operated by a 7-year-old boy, “H.B,” who is the brains behind the Alphabet operation. H.B. patiently leads the Man from Alphabet through a logical reasoning sequence that concludes with the solution to the day’s mystery. Man from Alphabet, its trousers proclaimed, was to be written on several levels to permit younger children on their levels of perception while their older brothers and sisters—and parents—could react on their own planes. During pretesting all planes bombed. Man from Alphabet was shelved. It seemed it was too bewildering. Its cause wasn’t helped much by the way its hero entered his office, he always crashed through the glass doors! One can only cringe at the possibility of toddlers mimicking this method of entry.
The researchers developed working guidelines for what was the most likely to arouse and retain preschooler interest. The guidelines, however, were just that/ they were not the last word or foolproof—as a live-action sequence exploring the concept of rectangles was to prove. As Dr. Palmer recalls: “Theoretically it had all of the elements to assure success—novelty, variety, fast pace and general visual sophistication. But it didn’t work. It had too much of all these qualities. As a result, the attention of our preschool audience wandered; there was no evidence they had learned from the concept, and indeed, some of the youngsters seemed thoroughly confused.”
The guidelines did stress repetition and the spacing of key segments. Pieces that were designed to be repeated through the series would have bouncy melodies or humorous endings, some with at slightly different twist each time. For instance, the “Countdown” series of spots, designed to teach numbers begins with a 10-second rocket-launch countdown that ends in mock disaster. In one sequence, the rocket falls over at blast-off. In another, the rock lifts A-OK but showers the spectators with a cloud of billowing black smoke. In a third sequence, the rocket stands motionless on its pad as the launch director is hurled into orbit.
One of CTW’s promotional films, used to lure television stations into using Sesame Street, made the point that the show would be so alluring to the younger set that “kids are going to race in from baseball to learn about letters and numbers.” This would happen, however, only after the youngsters were exposed to it. CTW first had to convince parents that educating preschoolers was urgently important and that television could help accomplish it. How to get disadvantaged children to watch Sesame Street was a major challenge for the Workshop. Their utilization people developed some unorthodox ways to meet this challenge!
Pearl C., a resident in one of Chicago’s low-income projects, had always received her gas and electric bill on a postcard. But the month Sesame Street had its debut, Pearl’s bill was an invitation for her youngsters to preview the first Sesame Street show giving the date and time it could be seen locally. Included with the invitation was the first of the Parent Teacher Sesame Street Guides—free of charge. The colorful guide, printed on newspaper, with a huge poster of one of the character’s on one side, was designed to augment the daily shows by suggesting activities , games, and book lists. The guide listed some of the educational highlights that would appear on each day’s program. By coordinating the number of each little lesson with the number of each Sesame Street shown at the beginning of every broadcast, the parent could keep abreast with the daily teaching program. Though a little suspicious, Pearl decided—since it was free, and might be helpful—to gather up her brood and tune in Sesame Street. Her family have been Sesame Street nuts ever since.
Young Henry W. from Saint Paul introduced his family to Sesame Street by bringing home of the guide he received at his day-care center. The Council of Negro Women was responsible for Henry’s introduction. In Sesame Street’s inaugural year, this group and the National Council of Jewish Women shouldered a major pat of the burden of distributing information brochures, arranging for placement of television sets in nursery schools and day-care centers, and organizing informal groups of parents and children to watch Sesame and participate in follow-up activities.
Due to their efforts, in certain inner-city neighborhoods it became very difficult to avoid Sesame Street. Publicity for the show sprouted on telephone poles, in barbershop windows, and Promotional leaflets were stuffed into phone and utility bills and welfare checks. Major promotional campaigns were launched by the stations that carried Sesame Street. Among the promotional devices used was the large “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?” button, and flyers that were prepared in both English and Spanish. Advertisements appeared not only in major newspapers and national magazines but also on soul radio stations, in Negro publications and in comic book syndicates. A special informative video column called “You, Your Child and TV” was prepared by Sesame Street’s assistant director of research and offered a free of charge to any newspaper that would plug Sesame Street. (For an example of this column see the appendix.) The show’s “gospel” was preached in neighborhood clubs, mothers’ groups, church and PTA associations.
The first “Sesame Street Big Sister” organization was begun in Washington, D.C. This organization was comprised of teenagers who volunteered to accompany preschoolers in their neighborhood to Sesame Street viewing centers and spent time following each show in play activity with them. A similar program was initiated in Manhattan under the auspices of the Youth Corps.
Involving teenagers with the show is one of the major visions of Evelyn Davis, CTW’s director utilization. For Sesame Street’s second year, Mrs. Davies wants to foster even greater communication with the community. She has begun a program, with its own follow-up personal guidance and materials designed to reinforce the lessons learns on the show, that will be manned almost totally by minority-group members, including full-time community workers in store-front Sesame offices in the ghettos of at least 12 major cities.
In its efforts to make Sesame Street a living reality, the entire cast hit the road late in August 1970 and brought the program to disadvantaged youngsters in 14 of the nation’s major metropolitan areas. From August 31 through September 15, Gordon, Susan, Bob and Mr. Hooper (Big Bird had his own solo road show) put on a 30-minute stage presentation as a preview of the series’ second season. Everywhere they went, the response was the same—Sesame Street, we love you.
One of the cities Sesame Street visited was Newark, New Jersey. In Newark, a city struggling for a future, stands Symphony Hall, a Byznatine monument from a less turbulent past. Years back crowds, after attending a concert of Oistrakh, Horowitz or Tibaldi, would spill out and mingle in one of the many downtown restaurants. Today, the performers still come, and the concert crowds still pack the large auditorium. But after the concert is over, White concertgoers rush home to the suburbs to have their coffee and cake in less bleak surroundings.
Nowadays, along with the posters that advertise symphonies and Shakespeare are posters advertising jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and gospel concerts. But the Black crowd that fills the old Mosque Theatre (as Symphony Hall is still called by those who remember its original name) for these events remain in Newark long after the last Halleluja has rocked the hall.
Symphony Hall opened its almond eyes one Tuesday morning in September and blinked to find streams of youngsters—fresh-faced, shoes polished, pigtails, bell-bottoms—pouring through its bronze doors. Beneath the pear-shaped crystals and star-encrusted dome, Newark’s children were already squirming with anticipation. There were Blacks and Whites; moms and dads. There were Head Start teachers with well-behaved classes. They came in pairs, in fours, and in twenties. Some were so small that they had to be carried. They were all waiting to meet Sesame Street.
Stagehands peering out from behind curtains had never seen anything quite like this before—a sea of tiny faces with unblinking eyes and little twinkly smiles.
A driving beat and the curtains parted and Demetrius and The Go Powers, backed by the SoundMasters (all young Newark soul talent) warmed up the audience. Little feet tapped in time to their solid rhythm. Numbers went on and on. Yet the children remained calm and attentive. After all, look what was to follow.
Finally they were onstage—Susan and Bob and Gordon and Mr. Hooper. Even Oscar phoned in his hellos! But there was big trouble in Newark that morning. BIG BIRD WAS LOST!
“Did you see him?” Gordon asked his young audience. Looking all around, under seats, in the next aisle, the children answered negatively. Gordon continued his speech: “He’s got to be somewhere. Maybe he’s up in High Street? Or in the Kinney Street apartments? Could he be shopping on Bergen Street?”
The children giggled as Newark’s familiar locales were named. Mr. Hooper came up with his solution—Mr. Hooper’s Super Duper Radar Scope. “Open it up, quick. Put it to work,” the children screamed. “I feel Big Bird, He’s…he’s…he’s in the back of the auditorium,” Mr. Hooper stated confidently.
Thousands of heads swiveled to the back. At that very moment, on the front of the stage, skipping ever so delicately, was Big Bird, in glorious living, yellow, purple and pink color. “Thank heavens,” the children sighed.
All’s right with the world. A few more songs, some little jokes and it’s all over. Too soon. “Will Sesame Street ever come back to Newark?” a little girl asked her mother as they walked out into the bright noonday sun. “Honey,” answers the mother, “with all those good vibrations passing across the footlights this morning, who says they ever left?”