Coloring Children’s TV

The year was 1969, and America was in a state of social turbulence. A giant yellow bird helped incite a revolution in children’s TV. The winged activist, of course, was Big Bird. And the revolutionary program was Sesame Street, the acclaimed series known for employing colorful Muppets to teach youngsters their ABCs.

Sesame Street, which has aired continuously for more than 35 years, has earned award upon award for its contributions. Now, the public TV staple that turned Bert, Ernie and Big Bird into household names can put another feather in its cap.

The National Association of Multi-Ethnicity in Communications has selected Sesame Street and the show’s producer, Sesame Workshop, as this year’s recipient of its prestigious Legacy Award.

NAMIC is recognizing Sesame Street and its creators for executing a trailblazing body of work that has made an indelible impact on the diversity landscape in TV.

Sesame Street joins a short list of honorees since the Legacy category’s inception three years ago. (Past winners were the groundbreaking Showtime series Resurrection Blvd. in 2003 and veteran TV producer Suzanne de Passe in 2004.)

“We are so honored to receive the Legacy Award and feel so supportive of the work that NAMIC is doing,” says Sesame Workshop CEO Gary Knell. “The media needs to be prodded and pushed to do the right thing, and Sesame Street has always been about positive reinforcement.”

When the show hit the air Nov. 10, 1969, TV wasn’t exactly embracing diversity. At the time, children’s programming was largely relegated to Saturday-morning cartoons. Cross-cultural themes — much less people of color — were few and far between.

Oxygen Media chairman and CEO Geraldine Laybourne, one of the masterminds behind Nickelodeon, says she vividly recalls how Sesame Street influenced mass media and successfully sought to address the cultural void on TV.

Captain Kangaroo wasn’t particularly diverse,” Laybourne says, before rattling off a handful of other children’s shows that were around before Sesame Street. “I don’t even think Romper Room was all that diverse,” she adds, then deadpans: “Howdy Doody was pretty white.”

But unlike their predecessors, Sesame Street’s architects set out to give disadvantaged children an educational head start, while highlighting the breadth of American culture.

“There was a true emphasis on diversity from the very beginning,” recalls Knell, the CEO. “Back then, it was revolutionary. There really were not programs that had a young Hispanic couple and African-Americans and Asians and green Muppets and a big yellow bird living under one roof.”

Sesame Street’s founders crafted the concept in the 1960s after taking cues from the ad world. Research showed that kids could remember advertising jingles like “plop, plop, fizz, fizz” better than the shows they were watching, so the show’s creators figured that kids could learn useful information — like letters, numbers and social skills — the same way.

TV veteran Joan Ganz Cooney provided the programming vision as the show’s founding producer, while co-founders Lloyd Morrisett of the Carnegie Foundation and Gerald Lesser of Harvard University laid the groundwork of research.

Creative geniuses like Muppets creator Jim Henson and composer Joe Raposo, who put their thumbprints on the show from early on.

The list of Sesame Street’s musical guests alone reads like a who’s who of showbiz elite. Among them: Ray Charles, Chaka Khan, Placido Domingo, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Dizzy Gillespie, Cab Calloway, Cassandra Wilson, Mahalia Jackson, and Wynton and Branford Marsalis.

That doesn’t even begin to touch on famous faces from other arenas who have made Sesame Street an A-list show, including poet and author Maya Angelou, tennis star Arthur Ashe, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, and a host of other stars.

“The reason celebrities wanted to be part of it is that it was so classy,” Laybourne says. “The short films were genius. The Muppets were genius. Big Bird was amazing … and Oscar the Grouch was completely the inner me.”

It almost goes without saying what NAMIC insiders think of their 2005 Legacy Award pick. When asked, Antoinette Brown-Leon, president of the Southern California NAMIC Chapter that is hosting the Vision Awards for the 11th consecutive year, aptly paraphrases a famous Sesame Street song.

“When you really look at the cast of characters,” she says, “one of them doesn’t look like the other.”

Sesame Street, which launched while the country was mired in the Vietnam War and still recovering from the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., also has earned a reputation for taking on real-life issues that, in children’s television, were previously considered taboo.

Among them: death, disabilities and overcoming tragedies, like Sept. 11.

In fact, Sesame Workshop has aggressively extended the concept overseas. The organization has reached more than 120 countries, largely through partnerships to produce local versions of Sesame Street around the world.

That has even led to an HIV-positive character. Kami, a Muppet on the cast of the South Africa version, helps illuminate life lessons about discrimination, humanity and social acceptance. “The idea is to build on a foundation of hope and optimism [in a] troubled world,” Knell says.