Below is a mildly edited version of a presentation I made at the New England American Studies Association on 8 June, 2019 at Fitchburg State University, in Fitchburg MA.
Hello, my name is Tad Suiter, I study the history of media and communications, and I hate Elmo.
…So I had a baby daughter about a year and a half ago.
Personally, I don’t try to eliminate screen time. I limit it, and I understand it’s dangers, but I do set my daughter in front of the TV sometimes, and part of the reason for that is Sesame Street.
I grew up on Sesame Street. Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and comic books taught me to read. While I had close relatives die earlier, the first death I remember was the 1983 death of Mr. Hooper. I still get choked up when I think about it, if I’m being completely honest.
So when my daughter reached the age where Sesame Street was capturing her interest, I had no problem setting her down in front of the TV to watch “the Street.” That said, I had an issue—I, as I said before, hate Elmo.
I can’t stand Elmo’s voice. Can’t stand how he is written, can’t stand the puppet’s design… I did not want my daughter loving Elmo.
Of course, now she loves Elmo. Elmo is unavoidable. Elmo is everywhere. Elmo is life.
Elmo is insidious.
But if she was going to love Elmo anyway, I was at least going to track down old Sesame Street, pre-Elmo Sesame Street, to start her out with.
What I discovered was a small community of Youtubers (who exist in a legal gray zone, to be generous) who track down old VHS tapes of Sesame Street, digitize them, and upload and share them. There are occasional takedown notices etc, but they are a small enough community and I doubt they are worth anyone pursuing.
So my daughter and I started watching episodes from before 1988 or so. Before the ascension of Elmo. Cumulatively, we have easily watched between fifty and a hundred hours of vintage Sesame Street in the last year.
We also have HBOGo and Hulu both of which have episodes of the program that aired between 2004 and today—shows that aired during my adulthood, in other words. So eventually I gave up and started watching more recent episodes as well.
And what I saw was that my old television neighborhood was gone. My immediate impression was akin to seeing the impact of gentrification transform a neighborhood you once knew. We’ve all experienced this at one time or another. You used to live or work or spend lots of time somewhere, and you come back years later, only to find it transformed to the point where it’s unrecognizable.
Everything seemed cleaner, somehow. Hooper’s store was still there—they have free wifi now!—but many local fixtures have been replaced with hipper, newer options. Sometimes there’s a farmers’ market, and there’s a rooftop garden on the top of the brownstone at 123 Sesame Street.
Everything seems to have been repainted in brighter colors. You might see an occasional familiar face, but the folks you knew from way back don’t live there anymore. The demographics have shifted.
I wanted to figure out what had happened to the show. Why it was so different. It had to be more complex than the simple passage of time. And because I’m a historian of media and my mind just works this way, I began a seriously deep dive into the history of Sesame Street. Because that’s what you get trained to do, when you do a PhD. You learn to obsess, to go down rabbit holes, to dedicate months of research to questions that other people would just shrug and forget about.
The more I researched the show’s history and evolution, the more episodes I watched and the more I learned what was happening behind the scenes, the more I had my initial impression confirmed—Sesame Street has, in fact, been almost literally gentrified.
Over the years, the show has responded to economic pressures much the same way many cities have– by trying to “clean up” the neighborhood, force out minority communities, and thereby raise the metaphorical real estate values.
Sesame Street may be populated by monsters, but there is no single “evil developer” character to be blamed for the gentrification of the Street. Rather, it can be understood as a series of rational decisions based on audience response and funding.
The initial germ of Sesame Street can be found at a dinner party held at the Gramercy Park apartment of Educational Television producer Joan Ganz Cooney and her husband Tim. Among the guests was psychologist and Carnegie Corporation exec Lloyd Morrisett, who had recently marveled at how his daughter would watch test patterns waiting for the Saturday morning “kiddie shows” to come on; and how she would memorize a whole host of jingles and slogans from ads.
Morrisett, whose work centered around children and education, asked if Cooney thought that television could be used to educate youngsters. Cooney replied that she didn’t know if it could, but she would like to look into it further. Cooney led a feasibility study, which led to a series of pilots—effectively iterative prototyping followed by outcome testing, which led to the series’s launch.
Empirical testing of educational outcomes has always been a cornerstone of the Children’s Television Workshop, the company that produced Sesame Street. (It has, in the 21st century, been rebranded as Sesame Street Workshop, but I will just refer to it as CTW from here on out for simplicity’s sake.)
But just as much as it has always been about learning the alphabet, numbers up to twenty, and lessons about sharing, Sesame Street has always been a show about representation. This was baked into the show from the beginning.
The show was funded in its initial season with grants from the Carnegie Corporation, the US Department of Education, and the Ford Foundation. It was the Ford Foundation that insisted the program target in particular inner city poor and minority children. Morisette and Cooney strike me as Great Society Democrats, I assume they were both very much on board with this decision.
It was Jon Stone, who essentially served as Sesame Street’s show runner over the show’s first twenty-some years, who had the idea to imbue the set with a sense of inner-city verisimilitude. If the program was to target young inner city youths, Stone reckoned the best way to do so was to present those children with a location that looked like where they lived. To that end, Stone demanded a “movie quality” main set—one with a much higher degree of detail than most television programs would have for their sets in the late 1960s. Trash cans and light poles, to that end, were scuffed up and grime-covered. There were signs of age and wear everywhere. The street set looked lived-in and real, in a way that children’s television at the time simply didn’t.
Thus, from the beginning, we see that CTW has two commitments—first off, there is a commitment to empirical research, to always testing and making sure the show is effectively teaching its curriculum. But there is another element that is just as key: a commitment to a specific vision, of television as a teacher, and specifically (though not exclusively) as a way of bridging educational gaps in early childhood that lie along class and race lines.
From the first episode, the African-American characters of Gordon and Susan were the emotional center of the show, serving as surrogate parents. They owned the brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, and served as hosts and educators to the children who visited, in their home or on the street.
The cast expanded, and the neighborhood took on a diverse Latinx community as well as more Black characters. Season 3 introduced multiple Latinx characters, including Sonia Monzano’s Maria, Emilio Delgado’s Luis, and Raúl Juliá’s Rafael. Later in the 70s, the show would diversify in multiple interesting ways, including the addition of Native American folk singer Buffy St Marie, and the deaf actress Linda Bove.
There was even some diversity among the Muppets. Created and voiced by the original Gordon, Matt Robinson, Roosevelt Franklin was a little boy who would sometimes take over his elementary school classroom, teaching lessons that ranged from the amusing to the deeply Afrocentric, as in the picture here where he teaches a geography lesson about Africa being far richer and more vast than how it is portrayed in Tarzan movies.
Roosevelt Franklin’s classroom was chaotic and anti-establishment, and all the students spoke in African America Vernacular English. This actually led to the segment’s downfall, as it was ultimately killed in deference to certain voices of respectability politics.
Over the years, economic pressures exerted themselves on the show. The grant funding that seeded the show eventually dried up, but merchandising was able to serve as a stopgap. The show’s dependence on merchandising deepened even further in the early 1980s as government funding shrank.
But this was not a problem, as the show was—from its first season—phenomenally popular. Dolls, books, records, and later videotapes all provided a lucrative source of income to supplement what dwindling funding could not.
Then, in 1992, Barney happened. The big purple dinosaur started eating into CTW’s ratings and their ancillary merchandise dollars.
It was in this environment that Kevin Clash’s Elmo became a breakout character. Elmo had been growing in popularity, especially in mid 1990s. Data showed that younger kids especially loved Elmo—he was especially popular with children as young as one or two, where the show had originally been targeted at 3 to 5 year olds. Perhaps not coincidentally, Barney similarly attracted children on the younger end of the five-and-under set.
The show got a major reprieve in the form of the Tickle Me Elmo Doll, which was propelled to success by the endorsement of talkshow host Rosie O’Donnell. That’s when the show’s producers went full throttle into Elmomania. By the end of the decade, the last fifteen minutes of each episode were dedicated to Elmo’s World, a segment where Elmo is the only character from the world of the rest of the show.
In the same decade, many of the show’s original creators passed away or retired. Joe Raposo, who composed so many of Sesame Street’s most classic songs, died in 1989. Jim Henson died in 1990. Joan Ganz Cooney stepped down as the head of CTW the same year. Muppeteer Richard Hunt, who played many smaller characters including Forgetful Jones, Don Music, and Sully the silent construction worker, died in 1992. John Stone, the show runner, died of ALS in 1997.
This show, which had always been steered by both evidence-based testing and a crew with a shared vision for what the show should be, began to lose its institutional memory. The keepers of that oh-so-important vision started to disappear, replaced with a new generation.
And instead of being steered by data and vision, the show slowly came see data collection as a way to combat dropping ratings. Coming into the 21st century, we see the rise of smart phones and tablets, of streaming video online and health organizations increasingly advising no television for children under five. Ratings slipped further, as they did across television generally.
In 2015, Sonia Monzano (who played Maria) announced that she would retire at the end of the season. The same year, CTW announced that it would partner with HBO, granting first run rights to the pay cable network for a six month window. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the show had operated at a $11 million loss the year before.
CTW angered many during this transition, not just by putting one of the most beloved public television shows behind a paywall, but by somewhat unceremoniously dropping the actors who played Bob, Luis, and Gordon. Bob McGrath had been with the show since the first episode, and the other two actors had been with the show since the 1970s. CTW later claimed that this was a misunderstanding on the older actors’ parts, and has invited them to make some brief cameos, but they are no longer part of the fabric of the show.
The show that Sesame Street has become is, as I said before, gentrified. It has literally been cleaned up—the original set was (unheard of for the time) a “movie quality” set, with an artificial but lifelike patina of urban decay. The set used today lacks the signs of use, wear, and damage. It uses more brightly colored paint, because these have proven more eye catching to young children.
It is also much less of a recognizable, organic-feeling urban community. The human cast in the show’s early years felt like a community that might exist in a neighborhood in a large city—it was a mix of Latinx folk, African Americans, white creatives like Bob (a voice coach), and Mr Hooper—a Jewish shopkeeper with a distinct accent who had clearly lived there all his life, and who let his customers put groceries on their tab.
The contemporary cast feels very much symbolically multicultural—a “one from each column” approach—while the majority of screen time goes to the Muppets, especially to newer characters who are coded younger, as the show’s core audience is now much younger. (It is also worth noting that CTW has almost never created merchandise that centered on the human cast members. Muppets can be marketed, muppets can be sold.)
…And all of this makes me sad, not just because of nostalgia, but because it means that the new Sesame Street looks a lot less like the neighborhood I am raising my daughter in.
I grew up in a former sundown town of under five thousand in rural Ohio. My neighborhood did not look at all like Sesame Street. But I kind of wished it did. When my wife and I moved to Massachusetts, we gravitated to a small, densely populated, urban neighborhood in Salem with a large Dominican and Puerto Rican community, where kids still play in the street and nobody calls it “free range parenting.” And part of me wonders if Sesame Street doesn’t have something to do with that.
Because far more than any other media I can recall from my youth in the early 1980s, Sesame Street presented an aspirational vision of a utopian urbanism… And did so when most cultural representations of urbanity were viscerally dystopian. Sesame Street took place in New York City, but the New York City it represented wasn’t at all the same “Fear City” that much media presented us with in flyover country. There was a superabundance of hope on Sesame Street. And cooperation, and love. And counting.
And I want my daughter to be able to watch episodes of Sesame Street where she can see a neighborhood that looks like the one she is growing up in: where the actors look like our neighbors, and the street looks a bit like our street.
And thanks to Youtube video archivists, she can. The fashions are a bit dated, a few of the technological references are pretty outmoded, but at the end of the day, Sesame Street has aged very well. The lessons, from letters and numbers to accepting and loving your neighbors, sharing, being patient—these things are timeless.
She loves Elmo, sure, and we both enjoy the new “Cookie Monster’s Foodie Truck” segments. But that in no way detracts from her enjoyment of the old episodes. She doesn’t care about the lower video fidelity or the fact that some of the old episodes are incomplete. She gets to live in a world with multiple Sesame Streets.
And I guess that’s the next best thing.