I think it’s safe to say that Sesame Street is one of, if not the most iconic kid’s shows ever made. Even if you didn’t grow up with it, you probably know about it in one way or another. With an iconic cast of lovable, colourful characters and over 50 years of educational broadcasting under its belt, Sesame Street’s staying power is truly immense. Unless you live in the UK.
Since 2017, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and Elmo have been banished from British screens, never to return. Even spin-offs like CBeebies’ The Furchester Hotel were cut over here, while still being able to continue in the US. On a glance, this Sesame Street purge seems rather strange. The show isn’t banned, and there was no particular controversy surrounding it. The BBC simply didn’t like it and it seems they still don’t.
This struck me as very unusual. Not just because Sesame Street is arguably the most successful children’s show of all time, but also because – especially nowadays – the programme’s content, lessons and morals would be just as appropriate to a British audience as their original American one. So, should the UK take another trip to Sesame Street?
A Quick History Lesson
It would be an understatement to say that Sesame Street and UK broadcasters have a complex relationship. As early as months after its initial premiere in 1969, companies like the BBC and ITV were reluctant to air the show. Reasons for this varied from the use of American terminology like “trash” and “zip code”, to the mere notion of a US-UK co-production being controversial.
One main gripe British broadcasters seemed to have with the show was its content and teaching methods. Believe it or not, the show was actually branded as “dangerous” and “authoritarian”, suggesting that its content was made to change the way children think and indoctrinate them in some way. The other issue was that the UK believed their own programmes were sufficient. Despite being the era of shows like Bagpuss and The Wombles, British broadcasters ironically considered Sesame Street’s use of puppets to be outdated and unable to reach the quality of UK educational children’s programming.
Of course, American broadcasters disagreed with this. In fact, Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street said that she hoped a British version of the show would be “something more telling than The Magic Roundabout”, directly questioning the true quality of Britain’s TV. This led to the show having an on-and-off presence on UK television. Switching between companies and channels, returning to air only to be taken off again and eventually, being canned entirely.
What’s so good about Sesame Street?
Sesame Street has come a long way since it’s initial release, but it hasn’t lost sight of where it came from. The show, at its heart, was made for American children from less fortunate backgrounds whose parents might have been unable to send them to preschool. Since then, the show and its crew have prided themselves on researching both the watching habits of their audience as well as their ever-shifting situations – be it social, financial or otherwise – to make sure children can learn and feel seen no matter who they are.
What once was a simple school curriculum-based show about letters and numbers has now evolved into a beloved series teaching communication and acceptance along with the usual maths and literacy. Even in the beginning, the show prided itself on its diverse cast and team, making an effort to include women and minorities to make sure everyone felt at home.
Today, Sesame Street has all sorts of characters with different backgrounds that are still hard to find in television. A long-standing favourite is Rosita, a fluffy green pal of Elmo’s who hails from Mexico. Speaking both English and Spanish, Rosita was introduced in 1991, a time when the US had a surge in the number of Mexican immigrants, allowing Hispanic children to be represented and heard. As of 2019, the US has a Hispanic population of approximately 60.5 million and, as such, Rosita has become a central part of the cast, acting as a representative for the community and teaching others about language and culture.
More recently, Sesame Street has gone even further, tackling more issues in its typical sincere fashion. These include homelessness, foster care, and even learning to cope with an incarcerated parent. The show also broke boundaries by introducing their first autistic character in 2015, Julia, who is now a core part of the show’s already diverse cast.
Aside from the main show, Sesame Street also has a vibrant online presence with equally enriching content. Recently, this has included short videos featuring both the Muppets and humans of Sesame Street discussing wellbeing during the pandemic, but older videos include the online-exclusive For Families series. Made alongside organisations like the New York Office of Mental Health and the USO, these videos were crafted for military families, discussing the problems they may go through in an accessible way, including deployment, life changes due to injury, and grief.
Why would the UK need that?
I’ll cut to the chase. At the time of this article, 30% of children are living in poverty here in the UK and as the pandemic continues, that number is likely to increase. 46% of these children are part of ethnic minority groups. Sesame Street was made so that disadvantaged children could learn like everyone else, and now that the show features characters in their situations, there’s even more room to feel accepted. That’s something all children deserve.
I don’t think there’s another program around that could match Sesame Street. The show is crafted with a lot of heart and intelligence, understanding children instead of patronising them. Encapsulating what they or those around them are going through, no matter where they’re from or how scary it all may seem and helping them get through it. After a year like 2020, we could all use a bit of help, especially children. It won’t fix everything, but I think we could all do with a walk down Sesame Street.
Words by Ly Stewart