‘Sesame Street’ Dazzles in Television Premiere

Sesame Street Season 1
Children's Television Workshop/Courtesy of Getty Images

Not until the closing weeks of 1969 did television offer a program series that really answered the long-standing criticism of the medium— namely that it takes of a viewer’s time without giving anything in return—and held out hope for a more substantive future. Significantly, the program has come from outside the commercial tv realm, and its brief rating history already suggests that it may be just the show to put public television on he rating map, and UHF in the bargain.

The show, of course, is “Sesame Street”—a daytime strip for underprivileged pre-schoolers which seems to owe a certain debt to “Laugh-In” and to the sell techniques of Madison Avenue’s commercials. One of the few shows in memory that has lived up to its advance ballyhoo, it Is the apotheosis -of education through show business, and anyone who thinks it is only for the smallfry ought to give it an hour. The show moves, seduces, diverts, dazzles, amuses and infects, and in the captivating course of things it teaches the very young basic human values, the meaning of numbers, the alphabet and solutions to simple problems. It is a sweet show, and a forceful one, and if racial peace and harmony should visit this country 15 or 20 years from now when the tots grow up, “Sesame Street,” as the most naturally integrated show in television, may be one of the reasons why.

It could be wishful thinking, but “Sesame” may well be the opening volley in an entirely new kind of television that exploits the medium’s faults and turns them into virtues. Repetition, slapstick, running gags, fast cuts, short takes, monsters, catchy ditties and even commercial interruptions (letters of the alphabet are the “sponsors”) are the stuff of the program. And if in five or six weeks a certain suburban two-year-old learned how to count, recite the alphabet and sing fetching little songs, it boggles the mind to think what effect a single fascinating series of television (that surrogate parent) must be having on the culturally undernourished kids of the ghetto.

Luring Numbers

For years, expensive commercial programming has shied away from thoughtful and – God-forbid-educational kidvid in the belief that it was rating leprosy. Yet here is a program carried primarily on educational channels, which traditionally pull no measurable rating all hours of the day and all year long, that rapped out a national rating of 3.3 the second week it was on the air (Nov. 17-23). The number translates to 1,930,000 households cumulatively for the week, or (per the average rating of 2.5) 1,460,000 households each day. This in a station lineup with a coverage factor of only 67.6% of all U.S. tv homes, and many of them on the UHF band. Notable is the Los Angeles market, second largest in the country, which receives “Sesame” only on UHF via the public tv channel.

According to Paul Klein, NBC’s veepee of audiences measurement who volunteered his rating expertise to the Children’s Television Workshop (which created and produces the series for National Educational Television), the audience size is “formidable” and seems to indicate that some homes which never tuned in UHF before have done so to receive “Sesame Street.” Winning over the kids to create a UHF habit is a principle well-known to the sharper U operators like Kaiser Broadcasting and U.S. Communications.

Inheritance Factor

While as yet there are no rating figures to prove it, it is more than probable that the “Sesame” audience has spilled over to adjacent ET programs, either before or after. The aforementioned two-year-old has become a devotee of ” Misterogers Neighborhood,” which follows the afternoon airing of “Sesame” on WNDT in New York, and a frequent viewer of the commercial cartoons on Gotham’s WPIX which precede the program at 9 a.m. there. WPIX, the commercial indie whose license has been challenged, is carrying “Sesame” sustaining in the early morning hour Children’s Television Workshop desired in New York but WNDT has been unable to provide. The station has mounted a lineup of sponsorable kidshows leading into “Sesame.”

According to Klein, WPIX’s carry of the show has broadened “Sesame’s” popularity in New York and helped to increase the ratings in the two later periods educational station WNDT airs it. “Sesame” debuted on NET Nov. 10 but began its run on WPIX Dec. 1. Over the first 17 WPIX days, it pulled a 2.4 N.Y. Nielsen and 17 share in its 9-10 a.m. berth. But more significant is that the ratings have climbed in the two WNDT hours since WPIX became an extra outlet for it.

From Nov. 10-28, “Sesame” drew a 1.6 rating and 7 share at 11:30 a.m. on the ETV station, and a 3.9 and 11 share in its 4.30 p.m. repeat. But since WPIX got into the act, making it three VHF airings per day for “Sesame” in N.Y. (plus three more on UHF), the WNDT numbers jumped to 2.1 and an 11 share at 11:30 and to 4.1 and a 12 share at 4:30.

If commercial television may be likened to Broadway and non-commercial tv to off-Broadway, “Sesame” is a clearcut off-Broadway hit.

5-Way Approach

Joan Ganz Cooney, director of the Workshop who conceived the idea for the series and promoted the backing, attributes the successful execution of it to several factors: (1) learning from the mistakes of “PEL” in setting up the mechanism for the Workshop; (2) the multiplicity of backers which guaranteed insulation from them and precluded their interference with the development of the concept: (3) the $8,000,000 underwriting which afforded 18 months of lead time for research and experimentation prior to the premiere, a luxury seldom realized in commercial tv, unfortunately; (4) a happy choice of staff, talent and creative hands and (5) the kindness of certain persons and companies in commercial television (see separate story).

As to the PBL example, Mrs. Cooney learned from a series of interviews with ex-Public Broadcasting Lab personnel that it was vital to keep her organization free from interference by the bankrolling entities and to spell out clearly the roles of everyone concerned— backers, educational advisers and staff—so that there be no clashes or confusion. Thus far, it has proved a good lesson.

The money has come from six sources—the Dept. of Health, Education & Welfare providing 50% of it, the Ford and Carnegie Foundation contributing most of the rest, the Markle Foundation and the Corp. for Public Broadcasting making smaller contributions, and Head Start kicking in $600,000. Since there has been no manifest upset, presumably al are being fulfilled.

Beyond the bulk ratings, questions that remain concern the program’s actual penetration in the urban ghettos, one of its express purposes being to abet the Head Start program. Since rating samples of households earning $3,000 a year or under are inadequate (with such a lack of spending power they’re useless to Madison Ave.), Miss Cooney’s Workshop will soon embark on a series of random sample polls and surveys of the ghetto to ascertain how it is being received there.

Meantime, there are encouraging reports from field representatives who say the program is getting excellent word of mouth in areas where it is most needed. “Sesame” is designed for pre-schoolers, but one field rep who recently visited a fifth-grade class in Bedford- Stuyvesant sent back word that every one of the pupils had watched the show.

‘Sesame’s’ Commercial Friends

Commercial broadcasters have made dollar and equipment contributions to educational tv in the past, but the support that has been given to “Sesame Street” is unprecedented in the relationship between public and private video. That is testament to the commercial medium’s appreciation of the worthiness of the project, and also to its faith in the Children’s Television Workshop’s ability to bring it off.

The CBS-owned tv and radio stations aired hundreds of pre-premiere promotional spots in their various markets, and, at 11:30 a.m. on the debut date in New York, flagship WCBS-TV advised its viewers that if there were pre-schoolers in the home it was suggested they switch to Channel 13 (educational WNDT) for the” “Sesame” preem. Both CBS and ABC News carried items about the show in their early evening national newscasts, and NBC aired the primetime preview of “Sesame” sponsored by Xerox Corp. (which CBS couldn’t clear time for). The Time-Life stations have been doing regular promotions for the “Sesame Street” teachers guide, and National Periodicals (“Batman” and “Superman”) donated page ads in about 800 different comic books and contributed handbills for the kids with Batman and Superman recommending the program.

In addition, two key network executives have volunteered their personal services on a continuing basis to Workshop head Joan Ganz Cooney. The two, oddly, are the principals of the CBS-NBC f e u d – CBS senior program veep Michael H. Dann and NBC v.p. of audience research Paul Klein. Klein, acting on his own, volunteered to extract rating data on “Sesame” from the Nielsen Co. and to analyze and interpret it for Mrs. Cooney. She says that he has gone beyond being a numbers adviser to serving as a kind of mentor- inspirit who has made a point of attending the Workshop’s curriculum seminars. Klein, it’s known, has privately involved himself with various new developments in elementary and preschool education.

As for Dann, Mrs. Cooney discloses that he phoned her immediately on reading the first news report on the formation of the Workshop in 1968 to caution that $8,000,000 would go down the drain if the project took an arty course, as public tv shows are wont to do, instead of a practical one. Although they had never met, Dann volunteered his counsel. He told her not to seek out a flashy producer who turned out a single fine film but to realize that an hour program five times a week for 26 weeks was volume television, which called for someone experienced in that kind of output.

“Mike played a critical role in the project,” Mrs. Cooney told Variety. “He was right, I was on the wrong road in my thinking. Until he called I was thinking in terms of an arty producer. He put me on target. We needed someone with imagination and taste who most of all was able to handle the practical day-in, dayout grind.

“I asked him for a suggestion, and he said he would do some research and get up a list of possible candidates. On top of the list was Dave Connell, who had done “Captain Kangaroo” for CBS. Mike had the highest praise for him, and he turned out to be the perfect choice. I might add that he (Dann) has been supportive of the project all along.”

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