Sesame Street in the Seventies: Politics, Funding, and Educational Media in National and International Context

AHA Session 45
Friday, January 3, 2020: 3:30 PM-5:00 PM
Clinton Room (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Gary Cross, Penn State University
Gary Cross, Penn State University

Session Abstract

Sesame Street is often described as the most researched show in television’s history. But this only refers to the psychology and education research that informs Sesame Street’s production and assesses its effectiveness. Scholars are only beginning to understand Sesame Street’s historical importance as an experiment in educational media that has lasted fifty years and a cultural institution that has influenced generations of children in the United States and in 140 countries around the world. On this panel, three historians will explore what Sesame Street’s institutional history and cultural legacy reveal about the politics of funding educational media, using it for civic engagement, and adapting it for international audiences.

Ostrofsky traces the efforts of the education reformers and social activists who produced Sesame Street to extend the program’s community outreach through other non-broadcast media. Sesame Street’s creators initially framed their intervention into antipoverty and racial tolerance from the top down, in terms of maximizing the potential of broadcast distribution and communication, but soon realized that the communities formed through the common experience of viewing the program created opportunities for bottom-up grassroots civic engagement. They launched a division that used Sesame Street to support community groups of urban teenagers, daycare providers, and even penitentiary inmates. Although Sesame Street’s sophisticated presentation of American culture aided its social mission in the U.S., it became an obstacle to adapting the program for international markets. Helle Strandgaard Jensen explores attempts by the Sesame Street to collaborate with European producers on localized versions of the program. The fraught process of defining the educational goals for these adaptations revealed the limits of Americans’ assumptions of universal psychological and educational standards. Jensen also finds differences in broadcast markets and expectations for language and cultural depictions that presented further challenges to these transnational media collaborations.

These papers stem from our ongoing book projects on the histories of Sesame Street and educational media. We show that Sesame Street is a particularly fruitful program for historical research because it created a vast archive as it continually explained its motives and justified its methods to its funders, collaborators, and government sponsors. Our research also demonstrates the difficulties and the potential of conducting historical research about media that are rarely preserved in traditional archives but that promise to help historians make political history interesting and relevant to a broader audience.

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