On this day in 1969, the pioneering children’s television program Sesame Street made its broadcast debut. Two years earlier, television producer Joan Ganz Cooney teamed up with the Carnegie Foundation to create a children’s show that would harness the “addictive qualities of television” for a greater good. Early childhood education became their focus, and Sesame Street was the first program for kids that was a collaborative effort between educators, child psychologists, and artists.
Based in a fictional inner-city neighborhood, the show featured an integrated cast of characters and gave national exposure to Jim Hensen‘s Muppets. The producers made a point of highlighting diversity and inclusiveness, and their prominent roles for black actors and incorporation of foreign language vocabulary initially caused states like Mississippi’s Board of Education to ban the show. Writers often wrote in adult humor and brought in guests like Stevie Wonder to encourage parents to watch with their children, and not simply use the show as a babysitter. Deaf and disabled actors were invited on. Even the Muppets themselves were of different colors and came from different walks of life. Bert and Ernie shared a neat basement apartment at 123 Sesame Street, and others, like Big Bird, made his nest in an abandoned lot by a trash dump, near his neighbor, Oscar the Grouch.
Many of the Muppet characters were designed to represent specific age groups and reflect their unique hopes and fears. Noticing children’s ability to sing commercial jingles from memory, the writers built in musical and animated skits throughout the program that highlighted numbers and letters, repeating them throughout like commercials. Characters like the beat reporter Kermit the Frog and the globe- trotting foreign correspondent Grover encouraged children to expand their imaginations to the larger community.
Sesame Street has now been on public television for more than 40 years, with many generations of loyal listeners. Today, the show and its global outreach program, Sesame Workshops, bring the message of inclusiveness, respect, and friendship throughout the world, encouraging communities to adapt the show to their own cultural needs.