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Sesame Street Celebrates 50 Years And Counting

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Sesame Workshop co-founder Lloyd Morrisett talks about the mission of Sesame Street and its 50 year impact.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 I like millions of children around the world, grew up watching Sesame street and I have a distinct memory of wanting to go where there were always sunny days friendly neighbors and the air is sweet. Well, Sesame street this year celebrates 50 years of teaching children their ABCs, one, two threes and how to value others. In December the program will receive a Kennedy center honor. The first time a TV program will receive this recognition, cofounder of Sesame workshop, Lloyd more set. We'll be in DC to receive the recognition, but before that I joined him in his LA Jolla home to talk about the profound impact Sesame street has had over the years. Well, Mr. Morrison, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you. Take us back to 1960 when you and your collaborators were creating what would become Sesame street? Where did the idea come from?

Speaker 2: 00:54 Came from first to steady. Just determine whether people thought television. It could be used to teach young children. Secondly, hiring a group of professionals that knew how to produce television. Third, getting the job done. We had to produce it at that time. 130 hours a over here of, of television. We had to have people that knew what they were doing and the calling it Sesame street. When you asked what the idea for Sesame street was calling it, Sesame street developed during the course of that process when they producers went away for a weekend seminar to try to figure out what they were going to call the program.

Speaker 1: 01:36 And how did you make that connection between uh, using between teaching kids and the television

Speaker 2: 01:44 at that time in the United States there was a lot of discussion about the failure of many kids who went to school unprepared either because they came from poor backgrounds or different kinds of families. And by the end of third grade they entered, entered first grade, three months behind and by third grade they were nearby. And there was a great discussion about how that gap could be overcome. I was then working at Carnegie foundation and we financed a number of experiments to try to see if you could inoculate children at an early age so that they would be able to succeed in school rather than failing. And it turned out all the experiments worked, but we were only reaching a few hundred children. There were about 1,000,005 at are in school that way each year. So there was a big discrepancy between what our goal was and what we were actually doing. And because I had become friends with Joan Cooney who was a producer, channel 13 I asked her if she thought television could be used to teach young children. She said she didn't know, but she'd like to talk about it. And that's how it

Speaker 1: 02:59 and your own daughter, she you, you saw and observed her even connecting with television, correct?

Speaker 2: 03:04 Yes. But we didn't know what she was connecting with. She'd get up on Sunday morning and watch the station identification signal.

Speaker 1: 03:12 So a little more research and you found it out. What was the most challenging part of all that?

Speaker 2: 03:19 I think in the beginning, one of the challenging parts was to get the people, the creative people from television and the research people from academia to work together and respect each other. It happened, but it was a challenge.

Speaker 1: 03:37 And so like, you know, respect. That's a value. Right? And it's one of the values you all always teach on Sesame street. Right? Well, talk to me about that. I mean it's, it's one thing to teach here your math and your reading and all of those things, but there are also a set of values that go into the show. How do you come up with those values and, and how do you decide and prioritize what you teach on there?

Speaker 2: 04:00 Well, as I've said at first we were trying to help particularly the children that needed it. Most those children frequently came from different ethnic families are different geographical families and we wanted to show them that they could be friends with people that were different. So for example, the character of Ernie and Bert were chosen to be very different looking people, Muppets in this case. But they got along as friends. And the idea that it was an inclusive show was there from the very beginning. That was one of the most important ideas.

Speaker 1: 04:41 And you have a background in experimental psychology. How did the concepts from your training help you build the educational foundation for Sesame street?

Speaker 2: 04:51 The background in psychology taught me that you had to have real evidence that what you were doing worked and why it worked. So we had research built into the program from the beginning,

Speaker 1: 05:02 and I've read that you and one of your Sesame street workshop co-founders, uh, Joan Cooney, uh, watch the filming of the first episode of Sesame street and you turned to her and you said, you know, Joan, we did it. What did you think you'd done at that point?

Speaker 2: 05:17 That was a preview of the television program with a, an audience of critics, funders, and a few other people. And based on their audience reaction, it was clear that we had done, done something that had wide appeal. And that's why why I said that.

Speaker 1: 05:40 Did you know that 50 years later, it still being an institution?

Speaker 2: 05:47 We couldn't see beyond the first year. We didn't know we have a second year. So, no, of course not.

Speaker 1: 05:54 Looking back, how do you feel about that? Great.

Speaker 2: 05:58 Oh yeah, it's, it's a, uh, it's a wonderful thing that it turned out so well. We had the benefit of the work of a lot of talented people.

Speaker 1: 06:09 When you accept the honor that Kennedy award honor. Um, I imagine that you'll be sort of looking back at all of those people that helped to put the program [inaudible]

Speaker 2: 06:19 yes. And accepting that honor. I don't have to say anything that night though. So that's very fortunate.

Speaker 1: 06:28 If you were to put together a Sesame street today, right? If you were starting from scratch, what would be the key things that you would want to teach children?

Speaker 2: 06:37 They still need the same cognitive development that we are trying to teach. They need to learn how to deal with and respect other children. They need to know that girls and boys have the same kinds of educational needs and just young children. They need to be aware that other cultures have their own values. So there are a lot of things that one would want to teach and we managed to teach some of them, but certainly not all.

Speaker 1: 07:07 I sure appreciate you taking time to talk to us. Thank you. That was Lloyd said co founder of Sesame workshop. You can catch the 50th anniversary. Sesame Street's special on KPBS television, November 17th for more information, go to kpbs.org

Speaker 3: 07:30 [inaudible].

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