HOLLYWOOD — In a world as perilous as the one we now live in, it’s nice to know Big Bird is alive and well.
Of all the things that folks around the globe routinely criticize America for — too much violence, junk food or money — “Sesame Street” stands out as a success story just about everywhere.
SesameWorkshop, the non-profit org behind Bert, Ernie, Elmo et al., has been quietly doing what it does for 35 years, and has, if anything, re-energized in the post-9/11 era.
And a good thing, too.
Organized American government attempts to get positive messages across to parts of the world critical of the U.S. have, to say the least, not noticeably lowered the level of animosity toward us.
Maybe Big Bird can do more toward opening up the minds of tots, especially in the Arab world, than a thousand madrassas — the religious schools that shaped many a radical fundamentalist — can do to close them.
In September Big Bird and friends will alight in three separate but jointly shot shows in the Mideast — an Israeli, a Palestinian and a Jordanian version. Emphasis in these, per the producers, will be on “appreciating similarities and differences among children.”
The company is also about to go into Bangladesh. India, Brazil and Northern Ireland are on the drawing boards.
That will bring the Sesame Street lessons on literacy, numeracy and life to 80-odd territories worldwide.
The 30-year-old formats in Mexico (“Plazo Sesame”) and Germany (“Sesamstrasse”) are No. 1 in their timeslots and still going strong.
Gary Knell, the soft-spoken but commercially minded prexy-CEO of the company, tells Variety that for all the snafus associated with getting localized versions of the pre-school show made — yes, there were strip searches of the crew on their way to work each day in the Mideast — the team has rarely run into political or cultural problems they couldn’t resolve.
“That’s largely because we go in and work with local partners. We design the kitchen, as it were; the local producers decide what to cook,” Knell says.
An HIV muppet called Kami on the South African version did indeed cause a ruckus last year, but has since become a popular mainstay on that show.
And the Chinese authorities temporarily yanked the Mandarin format after the U.S. military inadvertently bombed the Chinese embassy in Serbia several years ago.
But by and large governments have been eager to have the show for their markets: The Egyptian authorities encouraged the Workshop to make a version focusing on female illiteracy, since 60% of Egyptian women cannot read.
That version is now a hit on state broadcaster ERTV and will be the basis of the format soon to be fashioned in Bangladesh. A version for Afghanistan that tries to undo Taliban taboos is also in the works.
There are next to no indigenous kidshows to speak of in these countries, so the “Sesame Street” team is essentially a training op for the local industry.
“We’re really about working with locals to pinpoint the life lessons we want to convey — and then how to turn them into good kids TV,” Knell says.
Despite the successes abroad, the company does face obstacles both commercial and political back home.
Competish from cablers and more aggressive cartoons have targeted younger demos, forcing “Sesame Street” to shift its target aud toward ever younger viewers Stateside. Twenty-five years ago there was “Sesame Street” and “Mr. Rogers”; now there are 22 pre-school series on U.S. TV, Knell says.
Penny-pinched PBS, where “Sesame Street” is a fixture, is facing its own identity problems and the pull-out of various sponsors, which indirectly makes life for producers like the Workshop more precarious.
Latest sign of the times: Orange County, Calif., pubcaster KOCE may soon be sold to a religious broadcaster.
Given PBS’ woes and the growing consolidation in the media and retail businesses, kidvid producers like SesameWorkshop are facing a growing cash crunch.
Finding sponsors willing to pony up for a passel of puppets is an ongoing challenge. Knell and his team have wisely gone global in their search, enticing the European Union to help fund the Mideast muppets (to the tune of $2.5 million) and the Canadian and Dutch governments for other formats.
The Workshop has also partnered with commercial players — Random House and Time Inc. on the publishing and merchandising side, Viacom cabler Noggin to help exploit the 4,000-episode “Sesame Street” library.
And, crucially, Knell managed a couple of years ago to wrest the rights to Big Bird and friends back from financially strapped German kidvidder EM.TV for $100 million, a move that gives the Workshop rights to those muppets in perpetuity.
Generating some green from Sesame’s big yellow bird and his colorful cohorts will be essential in keeping this effort in kid-centric diplomacy going.