Wednesday

Nov. 10, 2010

I come from visiting my once-blonde
friend in hospital with non-Hodgkin's
lymphoma the chemo is working

we chat about other women's husbands
suffering from Parkinson's
we laugh cry hug we feel a little lucky

down the hall an attendant rolls a gurney
yellowish old man skull glares
from under a blanket

now how in hell do I get out
can't find elevator or stairs
despite red neon EXIT signs everywhere

"Lymphoma" by Alicia Suskin Ostriker, from The Book of Seventy. © The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1969 that Sesame Street premiered. The children's television show is known for its nonchalant, jaunty, and offhand presentation, but it actually has its foundations in an elaborately orchestrated utopian mission to bring about social equality in America.

The founders of Sesame Street, led by Joan Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett, said they aimed to "master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them." And that good was to prepare children from disadvantaged backgrounds to do as well in school as their privileged counterparts. They recognized that early literacy leads to success in school, which, in turn, is one of the most established paths out of poverty in America. Children from low socioeconomic households entered school with a huge disadvantage: generally, a vocabulary of about 3,000 words, compared to the 20,000 words that kids from high-income households had. Sesame Street creators conceived of their show as a way to provide kids from poor neighborhoods with tools to improve their chances of doing well in school. Low-income households in America were just as likely to own a television as high-income households, so they knew that their target audience would have equal access to the show.

They needed a lot of money and a lot of talent to achieve their vision. They were intent on making it a high-quality show that children would actually want to watch, and so they needed to compete with well-funded, well-produced commercial television shows. They raised about $8 million; donors included the Carnegie Foundation and the U.S. federal government, and allotted $28,000 (of 1968 dollars) for each episode. They assembled a team of early childhood development educators, led by a renowned Harvard expert named Gerald Lesser, and they set aside 10–15 percent of their budget for research. They had a board of directors, which held a series of seminars designing the curriculum for the show. The big guiding question was: "What do children need to know before they get to school?" Each aspect of every show was geared toward this.

They spent 18 months preparing to do the first episode. For a long time, they couldn't agree on a name for the show; in promo materials it was called "Preschool Educational Television Show." Eventually, they went with what the name everyone disliked the least, a reference to the magical "Open Sesame" phrase that in the Ali Baba tale opens the door to a cave of hidden treasure.

One of the early producers of the show recognized that her small child could recite beer jingles and other TV ads, so they enlisted Madison Avenue advertising people to help create phrases and images that were memorable. They performed intensive screening tests before the first show aired, with the idea that if you could hold the attention of children, you could get them to learn (an idea about which Malcolm Gladwell wrote extensively it in his book The Tipping Point; he called it "the stickiness factor" of Sesame Street). One of the pre-screening tests involved sitting a child in front of a recently filmed test episode of Sesame Street and also sticking a slide projector with random images beside the TV. The slide projector was a "distractor," and a new image would pop up every seven seconds. If the child looked away from Sesame Street and over to the slide show more than 50 percent of the time, the episode would get re-filmed. But if the child stayed with his eyes glued to the Sesame Street episode 80–90 percent of the time, the show was deemed suitably compelling and thus worthy of airing.

At first, one of the points where they seemed to be losing kids' attention was on the "street scenes," where human actors were trying to help gel the take-home curriculum lessons of the day. The team of childhood education experts had proclaimed that human beings should not interact with Muppets on the screen — that this would certainly confuse children. But Sesame Street producers eventually decided that in order to hold kids' attention, they needed the Muppets talking with humans, and so they re-shot those segments, disregarding experts' advice. The human-Muppet conversations came to define Sesame Street.

The show premiered on this day in 1969, and it was immediately a success. Within a year, Big Bird appeared on the cover of Time magazine. They found almost right away that children who watched Sesame Street performed better on standardized educational tests than children who did not watch the show. Ten years after the show debuted, there were 9 million children a week watching it. In the past four decades, the show has won eight Grammys and more than a hundred Emmys.

All sorts of celebrities have appeared on the show to count and teach letters. Last year, on the 40th anniversary, Michelle Obama appeared on the show to talk about eating fresh vegetables, and that day the characters on Sesame Street counted all the way to 40.

From the archives:

It's the birthday of theologian Martin Luther, (books by this author born in Eisleben, Saxony (1483), which is now located in Germany. He's best known as the man who sparked the Protestant Reformation, but he was also an extraordinarily productive writer. As he approached old age, Luther began to regret how many books he had written. He said: "The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no limit to this fever for writing. ... I wish that all my books were consigned to perpetual oblivion." But he never regretted having translated the Bible into ordinary German. Toward the end of his life, he was so overwhelmed by the scope of the revolution he had caused that he stayed out of the limelight, at home in Germany, raising a family, gardening, and playing music.

It's the birthday of best-selling graphic novelist and science fiction writer Neil Gaiman, (books by this author born in Portchester, England (1960). His first big success was The Sandman, a comic that is more than 2,000 pages long, which he wrote and published in installments between 1989 and 1996.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

 









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