Thursday, February 08, 2007

"S" is for Sesame Street

The Kidscreen Summit is going on right now, providing an endless stream of children's media related news items. In particular, two announcements from the Sesame Workshop have caught my eye. For a number of years now, Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children's Television Workshop) has had full-run of the Sesame Street franchise, using it to propel research, educational curriculum, and a staggeringly significant global kids' media brand. The show itself has had some ups and downs over the years, but continues to be both a critical success and a huge audience draw. For example, as of 2005, it had won over 100 Emmy Awards, the most awards given to any one show in the US (and last year, it won 8 more). It's also won awards and praise from a variety of organizations, governments and NGOs, both domestically and abroad (even Kofi Anon digs it!). It's the most-watched children's television program in the world (though I can't find the stats on total audience reach, which is too bad) and airs in over 140 countries.

(BTW: It was just nominated again for several Emmys, including Outstanding Pre-School Children's Series, Outstanding Directing in a Children's Series, 2 nominations for Outstanding Performer in a Children's Series (one for Caroll Spinney, as Oscar the Grouch, and one for Kevin Clash, as Elmo), and Outstanding Writing in a Children's Series.).

The first announcement is that Sesame Workshop, in conjunction with German networks NDR and Ki.Ka as well as Five's Milkshake in the UK, will be launching a new claymation spin-off series called The Adventures of Bert and Ernie, set to air in 2008. The show represents something of a jump for Sesame Street into a new genre, but the company fully intends to maintain its brand identity. As KidScreen magazine describes:
"We want to bring Sesame Street into the 21st Century, but, we're not ready to make huge changes to the overall show and brand," says Jennifer Monier-Williams,VP of global television distribution for Sesame Workshop. Accompanying the German and UK deals, presales have been made to ABC (Australia), Cartoon Network India, DBC (Denmark), Disney Asia, Disney Spain, HOP (Israel), NPS/Zeppelin (Netherlands), NRK (Norway), and SVT (Sweden). Interestingly, there is no US broadcast deal in the works, but look for the segments to pop up on DVD releases and in special promotions.

The second announcement (also courtesy of KidScreen) deals more directly with Sesame Street's global media project, in particular a community-focused website called Panwapa (and accompanying DVD) that aims to teach kids about globalization and their roles as global citizens. The site will consist of a portal, hosted by six new Muppets created specifically for the program, and will emphasize social issues and responsibilities. As KidScreen describes:
The site's users will be encouraged to set up their own "Me Page" that will include a personalized avatar, a home-country setting, and a list of interest topics to choose from, including favorite food, animal and musical instrument. Interactive games, such as treasure hunts where participants will be asked to search out citizens who like peanut butter sandwiches, for example, will also be part of the site. The end goal is to get kids thinking about the world as a diverse place, full of different languages, cultures and economic circumstances.

These new international projects got me thinking about how problematic Sesame Street is as a case study in media globalization. Here is a cross-media, totally synergized children's media brand, that exports its programming around the world, oftentimes with state or NGO assistance as a result of its promise that television can be used to teach young children basic literacy and academic skills. As a media megabrand, Sesame Street traverses into other media forms (from direct-to-video, to computer software, to books and in-school programming), and is heavily involved in merchandising and licensing (just think of the massive success of the Tickle-Me Elmo dolls, or all the products, toys and accessories that bear the images of the Sesame Street characters). In 2005 alone, the Sesame Workshop made $96 million, 68% of which was generated by licensing and merchandising spin-offs. When analyzed from a political economic perspective, the Sesame Workshop is every bit as commercial and imperialistic as Disney or Pokemon.

Yet, Sesame Workshop's particular brand of globalization often involves localized versions of Sesame Street that are co-produced with local creative teams. In so doing, they have often succeeded in creating locally sustainable and culturally-inclusive children's programming. They're also at the forefront of promoting awareness of social issues using child-friendly language and themes, taking on HIV/AIDS in South Africa and ethnic tensions in Kosovo. The contents of the show/brand itself represent children's television at its finest--its fun storylines and engaging characters, age-appropriate themes, probably educational emphasis on language, letters and math (although this is one of the issues under debate), and its commitment to children's own cultural experience and concerns. From this perspective, it suddenly becomes very difficult to clump the Sesame Workshop in with those other global media brands. This is truly an example of corporate identity clashing with financial reality, and (I think) a particularly clear example of the tension between cultural studies and political economy.

A great way to explore this further is to watch The World According to Sesame Street, a documentary film released last year by Participant Productions (the same peeps who brought us Syriana and An Inconvenient Truth). While the film, an official selection at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, is certainly not an overly critical examination of Sesame Street's own felt-coated brand of cultural imperialism, it does provide a nice counterbalance when juxtaposed with the literature on (evil) globalization and political economy. I fully intend to use this film once I start teaching, as a way of demonstrating the grey areas of globalization...that not everyone involved is doing so for the sole dark purpose of exploitation...and yet that this can nontheless be the consequence of even the best intended projects.

Here are some additional academic sources on the issue:
Moran, Kristin (2006). The global expansion of children’s television: a case study of the adaptation of Sesame Street in Spain. Learning, Media & Technology 31(3): 287-300.

Fisch, Shalom M. and Rosemarie T. Truglio (eds.) (2000). "G" Is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Hendershot, Heather (2000)Sesame Street: Cognition and Communications Imperialism, pp.139-176 in Kinder, Marsha (ed.) Kids Media Culture. Duke University Press.

And here's an article on Sesame Workshop'snew distribution deal with Genius Products/The Weinstein Company, as well as an article on how to submit shorts for inclusion in the series.

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