“Sesame Street” bowed 50 years ago, on Nov. 10, 1969, one week after the launch of PBS. A month later, Variety reporter Les Brown gushed, “It may be just the show to put public television on the ratings map.”
He was right. “Sesame Street” drew 1.9 million households — especially impressive since it was seen in only 67% of the country.
On Dec. 24, 1969, series creator Joan Ganz Cooney explained the show’s success to Variety: 18 months of research and planning, lack of interference from the companies funding the new show, and hiring the right people.
Not everyone was enthused. In May 1970, a Mississippi state commission banned the series, saying “Mississippi was not yet ready for” the integrated cast. A July 22, 1970, Variety story said that was the tip of the iceberg. Stations in seven Southern states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Virginia) had been preempting all PBS shows aimed at black audiences, citing a matter of “taste.” The shows included “Soul!,” Tony Brown’s “Black Journal” — and “Sesame Street.”
Ganz Cooney, whose previous credits included producing the TV special “Wallace Stevens: A Poet’s Seasons,” said she got invaluable advice from CBS senior programming VP Mike Dann: Don’t get too arty. “He was right,” she said. “I was on the wrong road in my thinking. He put me on target.”
So “Sesame Street” became artistic without being arty, targeting preschoolers, who were known to have short attention spans, by using bright colors, repetition and fast-moving segments. It was a style that Variety’s Brown compared to NBC’s mega-hit “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In” and most TV commercials. “Sesame Street” was radical in its simplicity: Since preschool kids had been addicted to TV for years, why not give them something educational? The 1969 Variety article said the show “teaches basic human values, the meaning of numbers, the alphabet and solutions to simple problems.”
Most critics were enthusiastic, but a few felt the inner-city neighborhood was too sanitized. Latino activists and women’s groups protested their depiction on the show. But within two years of the series’ debut, production company Children’s Television Workshop had filled its ranks with plenty of minorities, in front of and behind the camera.
Much of the preshow research proved invaluable, but some was way off base, such as a fear that tykes would be confused if humans interacted with Jim Henson’s Muppets. So Henson created two characters that could interact with the humans: Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch (performed by Caroll Spinney from the get-go). The other Muppets were kept apart. But pretty soon, everybody realized that kids could deal with this.