Thursday, June 24, 2004

An Open Letter to CTW

**Note: I e-mailed this to Sesame Workshop (now the name of CTW) on Monday, June 28**

An open letter to CTW.

Dear Children’s Television Workshop:

I see that Sesame Street is turning 35. Congratulations — after all the funding battles you’ve faced over more than three decades, I have to say you’ve done some excellent work.

I know, because I’m a product of Sesame Street. It taught me Spanish. It taught me sign language. I hadn’t seen a black person or a Hispanic person or a kid with Down’s syndrome until I saw Sesame Street. And I saw those kids playing and learning and growing together.

Counting was fun. Learning letters was fun. There were raucus songs and quiet songs, near-frantic zaniness and real caring. I saw Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” outside Mr. Hooper’s store, and really, how cool is that?

There were problems, of course. Your female puppets certainly reflected the times. Prairie Dawn, in her pinafore and golden hair, was always trying to restore order to plays that were just this side of chaotic. She was long-suffering and a little didactic. “Oh welcome, oh welcome to our lit-tle play,” she’d sing, and her tone of voice told me she wasn’t to be taken seriously — the funny stuff was going to be on stage, where all the boy puppets were.

But you had strong women too — Susan and Maria and Linda. And the animated bits had lots of female characters.

I love the history and purpose of Sesame Street. I hate that some kids might have to get the alphabet and numbers from a TV show instead of a good preschool program and interested parents, but I love that it’s there to help some kids who might have fallen through the cracks even before they got to kindergarten. I love the pitch film for Sesame Street: ur-Muppets sitting around a table smoking — smoking! — and talking about “selling” the alphabet through “commercials.”

To me, that is what Sesame Street IS. That is its mission.

So I’ve surprised myself by not letting my kids watch Sesame Street now.

Your purpose, as I’ve said, was to prepare kids for kindergarten — teaching letters, numbers, shapes and colors, and throwing in some good socialization and manners, plus culture through songs and dance.

I don’t see that now in Sesame Street.

I see, instead, 5- to 7-minute installments full of “problem-solving.” I see story lines of sit-com caliber. I see a lot of whining. I see a lot of male dominance. I see, really, a lot of stupidity.

I will now pick apart three aspects of the new Sesame Street that make me turn the channel.

1. Journey to Ernie
Journey to Ernie is a three-part spot where Ernie hides in a box in the park. Big Bird goes to find him. When he looks, he finds some trick boxes that hold “portals” that take him to different “places.” Some of the places consist of the old animated spots from earlier Sesame Streets. Finally, Big Bird finds Ernie, to a fanfare of trumpets. Hooray.

I see it, and I think, “I should just get myself a nice video game and play it and have my kids watch it.” The only problem solving I see in this is that a child learns that if she waits long enough — and it certainly isn’t that long — Big Bird will solve the whole thing for her.

The places Big Bird explores are poorly animated and unimaginative. Sesame Street was renowned for its almost-human puppetry and vivd, if low-budget, sets. Why settle for glitz?

And not only that, you have less than 10 “worlds” that Big Bird explores. Considering you go through three an episode, you run out pretty quickly — a fact not lost on my test audience.

2. Baby Bear
I’d like to know the thought process behind Baby Bear. “Let’s see…We’re looking for a puppet that’s a bear, that talks baby talk, and adds absolutely nothing to the show. How about Baby Bear!”

Why talk down to your audience? Why have a character use baby talk? One of the things that was so revolutionary about Sesame Street was that it treated kids as people, not something to be talked down to.

Haven’t you noticed that the most annoying character in any sitcom is the smart-alecky kid? The kid who can use big words in a cute voice? Why did you think Sesame Street needed a similar character?

And this “Hero Guy” thing. That has GOT to go. I’m all for imaginary friends and creative play. But when Baby (Boy) Bear sings “He’s a hero! He’s a guy! He’s Hero Guy!” I get really, really tired. I get that glazed look and I start to wonder if I should even bother anymore. He’s a hero, AND he’s a guy. Gotcha.

But what really put me in the camp against Baby Bear was the episode when Mama Bear was pregnant. There was a lot of nice talk about how Mama and Papa would still love Baby Bear once the NEW baby got home (and gosh, what are they going to call the NEW baby? New Baby Bear?), and so on.

Then Mama Bear went into labor. She huffed a bit, and said, “Dear, it’s time.” She said it several times. Papa didn’t get it. She said it again, and again, and again. Papa repeated, “It’s time? It’s TIME?” Then he and Baby Bear gaped at each other, paused, then hollered, “IT’S TIME!”

And then they ran around the apartment frantically. While Mama Bear sat at the kitchen table, in labor.

Did you really not see how very offensive that was? On so many levels! Papa not listening to Mama. Papa apparently ignorant about what would happen during labor. Papa freaking out upon realizing he’s going to become a father — again. Didn’t they go through this once already? And poor Mama Bear, stuck at the kitchen table, forced to make her labor wait until Papa and Baby Bear had finished their display of — of what? What on earth were you trying to teach in that little clip? That a woman going into labor is a reason to panic? I found myself wishing she’d just called herself a taxi and been done with it.

3. Elmo
Elmo. Some love him. Some hate him. I feared him, but having raised one child through Year Three, I see the appeal. That laugh is infectious.

But in Elmo’s World I see one of the saddest things on TV. In every episode, Elmo talks about a topic — clothes, the weather, pets, families (and kudos to you for including a same-sex couple in your photo album of families!) — at some length. When the subject is exhausted, Elmo says, “I’d like to learn more about the weather! Where can we go to find out MORE?”

Gosh, I don’t know! The library? A book? An expert? Even online? No, Elmo goes to the TV to find out MORE.

Perhaps it is ironic for me to be disappointed in that — after all, I am commenting on a TV show. But I think it’s really, really sad — not to mention dangerous — to teach children that their first resource for information is the TV.

In our part of the world, Sesame Street is on a 5 p.m. and runs an hour -- perfect for use as an electronic babysitter while I get supper ready. There are no commercials. And I used to think I could set the kids up and leave them, staying close in the kitchen in case there are questions. I didn't think I had to keep an eye on the TV and offer commentary if I saw something I didn't like.

So now, I don't, anymore. We watch Sagwa, or I put on a tape of the Wegman dogs or the videos of house construction or farming. I never thought I would say it, but I'm not crazy about my kids watching Sesame Street.

As you can see, some complaints are purely personal. I don’t expect others to see it the same way. But some, I think, are more broadly valid. In this regime of underfunded schools and Head Start programs that are slashed, kids need all the help they can get, and your retooled Sesame Street lets them down.


  1. BRAVO!!!! I applaud this!

    I don't like Sesame Street, despite having it there when I grew up, my children have never watched a single episode for all the reasons you've listed here.

  2. I really think you should send it, Krup. It's excellent and it's criticism they should hear.

  3. You should definitely send it. I detest the "newfangled" wimpyassed Seasame Street.