I’ve been a big fan of Sesame Street since I was a little boy. Bert, Ernie, Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird were my peeps back then.
Did you know that Oscar the Grouch was orange in the original show?
My respect for the show grew to new heights when my wife and I had twins in 2001. We had the pleasure of watching our favorite characters evolve through our children’s eyes. Ultimately though, my interest in the show waned as my twins grew older. They began searching for more mature content like Blues Clues and The Wiggles and just like that, we tucked Sesame Street into a drawer and forgot about it.
But that all changed when my third child arrived 16 months ago. He’s now officially in Sesame Street’s sweet spot and can be found hobbling around my house barking two words over and over again — “Elmos World, Elmos World, Elmos World…”
So when Sesame Street turned 40 earlier this week, I made it my business to learn more about how this show became such a huge phenomenon.
What I discovered was tons of learnings for marketers. That’s right – marketers.
Just as Jerzy Kosinski’s book “Being There” offers life lessons disguised in the form of metaphors, these lessons are nestled away in metaphors too. But when you think about it, it’s all there in plain sight for you to assimilate and digest in your own way.
Experimentation is a Mindset
Sesame Street was always considered an experiment. 40 years later, it’s still considered an experiment.
Change is unavoidable
In the beginning, Oscar was orange. Cookie Monster originally had teeth. Big Bird had a pin-head. Appearance isn’t everything; if the characters feel real, Sesame Street insiders say, kids will follow them through whatever changes they make.
C Is For Competition
With only a few exceptions, Sesame Street had the children’s education market to themselves for years. But with the success of the program, other characters began moving into the television neighborhood. Over the years, as Barney, Dora, SpongeBob and others tugged away at the Sesame Street audience, producers started to plan some major renovations.
If you only watched Sesame Street in the early years, you’ll be surprised by the look and feel of the program today. It’s brighter, for one. There’s a nice dappling of fake sunshine on the set, the graffiti is gone, and the sound of cars in the distance has disappeared. Carrol Spinney — or maybe the Grouch inside of him — says, “It looked a little more grungy, and frankly I loved it grungy.” In the beginning Sesame Street was aimed mainly at urban kids who didn’t have the preparation to start school. When everyone started watching, it needed to be brighter.
Learn From Your Mistakes
In 1994, Sesame Street started to sprawl. The show built a whole new set for a segment called “Around the Corner.” It was supposed to be a glimpse of what happened on the next street over. Then they added a hotel, the “Furry Arms,” and a whole list of new characters and a great comedic actor, Ruth Buzzi. But it never caught on.
“We ended up with too many characters and too much going on,” says author Louise Gikow. “So they pulled back the characters and went back to the street.”
Keep It Simple
The early Sesame Street was based on variety shows like Laugh-In. Segments varied wildly in length and subject, and you could never quite tell what would happen next, or how long it would last. At the time, researchers thought the unpredictability helped to hold kids’ attention. But with the advent of the VCR and DVD, it became clear that kids could watch one story for long periods of time.
“We were breaking up the narrative,” says Rosemary Truglio, the head of research at the Sesame Workshop, a non-profit organization that used to be known as the Children’s Television Workshop. “Instead of having the children experience the narrative as a 15-minute story.”
Now, the interruptions are gone. The new season of Sesame Street has a bunch of little shows within the show. One long story might be followed by 10 minutes of Ernie and Bert, after which Elmo gets his 15-minute block. It’s calm and predictable for kids, especially the 2-to-4-year-old audience that Sesame Street is now drawing, says Carol-Lynn Parente, the show’s executive producer.