In 1969, a revolutionary children's television series went on the air. This experimental show on public television, free from commercial advertising, was designed to help young children make the transition from home to pre-school by teaching them basic skills, ranging from their ABC's to how to share.
The program starred an ensemble cast of all ages and racial backgrounds, a big yellow bird the size of the Empire State building and a couple of guys named Bert and Ernie. The show was, of course, "Sesame Street."
After a myriad of awards, more than 2,500 episodes and millions of 25-year-olds who still know the words to "One of These Things is Not Like the Other," "Sesame Street" is launching its 22nd season on Monday.
The show is now seen in 11 million households weekly in the United States and by millions more in 80 countries. In addition, there are 15 versions produced in other languages.
During the new season, the program will begin a series of lessons about race relations, add two new cast members (teen-agers Eugene Byrd and Alexis Cruz) and will have to cope with the death (last May 16) of Jim Henson, the father of the Muppets.
Executive producer Dulcy Singer, who came aboard as associate producer during the first season, discussed the "Sesame Street" philosophy with Lauren Lipton.
Has the series changed much over the years?
In the early sessions, the emphasis was on the basic skills--alphabet, numbers, relational concepts, geometric shapes. We still teach all that, but the curriculum has grown enormously with the times. Just to give you an example, it includes health, computers, Spanish culture, ecology, geography, and this year we're adding race relations.
Are there any issues you would shy away from?
The basic tenet is to show things in a positive way. We have to consider that a lot of our audience watches alone, so we wouldn't want to do anything that might frighten a child.
You try to teach in a general way about taking responsibility for yourself.
Right--in a way that would be appropriate for a 3-year-old. I mean, we have to consider how very young our audience is. Our target audience is 2 to 5, but we hear that children start watching even younger these days.
I read recently that the average child watches 15,000 hours of television and spends 11,000 hours in school, through high school. That must be a mind-boggling responsibility to have.
I guess the reality is that kids are going to watch that much. Certainly we don't encourage that much watching. In fact, on the show, we try to encourage reading.
Would you prefer to have a child not watch "Sesame Street" and have the parents read to him or her and be very attentive?
Of course, we would like both. In the ideal situation, a parent would talk about what they saw on the air and would do follow-up activities.
This season you have a lot of celebrities coming on board. Why did you choose to go after Julia Roberts, for example? Or Bo Jackson?
They're currently very popular stars, and the notion of having guest stars is again so that older brothers and sisters and parents will watch "Sesame Street" and talk about it (with the younger child). Studies show that if a child watches with the parent and talks about what's on the program, he gets more out of it. Also, the older people in the family have control of the dial
Is "Sesame Street" geared toward a specific audience?
I guess our target audience is the so-called disadvantaged child, the child who perhaps doesn't enter school with the same skills that a middle-class child might because his parents don't have time to read to him. So that's the child we think of, but other kids watch.
Who decides what your curriculum is going to be? Are you involved with that?
Our director of research works with child development specialists. The show is tested continually. They take it out and show it to kids in day-care settings and at home and talk to them about, first of all, what holds their interest, and also what they did and didn't understand.
This information is fed back to the producers and writers on a regular basis. It goes on all the time--we actually only tape for four months of the year, but the rest of the year is spent on all these other things.
You decided this season to focus a bit more on race relations. What made you decide this was the year to do that?
We've always dealt with race relationships. With the diversity of people on the show, it's certainly been implicit. But we also felt that it was time to be more explicit.
Certainly we are not going to solve the problems of race relations, but we all feel that if it's a drop in the ocean it's better than nothing. Also, we get to our audience when they're so young so we have a better chance of influencing them.
How is Jim Henson's death going to affect the show?
We have a tape library that's very extensive, so you'll continue to see Ernie, Kermit, Guy Smiley and all those characters (that Henson voiced) on every day as much as they were. As to what we'll do in the future, that decision hasn't been made yet. But Jim's characters are alive on "Sesame Street."
The first episode of the 22nd season of "Sesame Street" airs on Channel 28 Monday at 10 a.m., Tuesday at 9 a.m. and Wednesday at 8 a.m.; on Channel 15 Tuesday at 9 a.m.; on Channel 50 Monday at 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., and on Channel 24 Monday at 2:30 p.m. and Tuesday at 11:30 a.m.