IT is almost too perfect that the first African-American president of the United States was elected in time for the 40th anniversary of “Sesame Street.” The world is finally beginning to look the way that the PBS show always made it out to be.
Top, Big Bird, still a big star on “Sesame Street.” Above, Zoe, Rosita and Abby Cadabby sing about gardening.
So it is to the credit of this daunting cultural landmark — a program that has taught generations of children to count, countless parents how to teach and is seen in 125 countries around the world — that Tuesday’s anniversary is not a frenzy of preening self-celebration. Episode No. 4187 is as child-centric and respectful of routine as any other.
The special guest — the first lady, Michelle Obama — doesn’t make her appearance alongside Big Bird until midway into a show crammed with the usual preschool didactics. The letter of the day comes first — H, as in help and hug and healthy.
The only real difference is that on this day, viewers have to count to 40.
The pedagogy hasn’t changed, but the look and tone of “Sesame Street” has evolved. Forty years on, this is your mother’s “Sesame Street,” only better dressed and gentrified: Sesame Street by way of Park Slope. The opening is no longer a realistic rendition of an urban skyline but an animated, candy-colored chalk drawing of a preschool Arcadia, with flowers and butterflies and stars. The famous set, brownstones and garbage bins, has lost the messy graffiti and gritty smudges of city life over the years. Now there are green spaces, tofu and yoga.
It’s still a messianic show, but the mission has shifted to the more immediate concerns of pediatricians and progressive parents, especially when it comes to childhood obesity. “Sesame Street” takes the Muppets, rhymes and visual verve that were developed to instill tolerance, racial pride and equality, to preach exercise and healthy eating.
Put it this way, Mrs. Obama’s message on the anniversary episode isn’t an exhortation to future soldiers, scientists and presidents to be all that they can be, but to tiny consumers to eat the freshest food they can find. “Veggies taste so good when they come fresh from the garden, don’t they?” Mrs. Obama tells a rainbow coalition of children gathered around a soil tray, an echo of her White House kitchen garden. “If you eat all these healthy foods, you are going to grow up to be big and strong,” Mrs. Obama says, flexing her fists. “Just like me.”
That foodie focus is a reflection of the times and current fads, but also of a tension in the mandate of “Sesame Street,” as it straddles the two imperatives of being a public service in the broadest sense of the word — serving the underserved — while also competing with all the other shows and satisfying the public television donor base.
It is an urban myth that Cookie Monster was turned into Veggie Monster to appease nutrition Nazis, however — that was a blogosphere rumor in the Paul-Is-Dead school of whispering campaigns. But Cookie Monster’s palate was refined during Season 36 as part of the show’s “healthy habits for life” campaign. He now also gobbles fruits and vegetables, which are labeled by the show as “anytime” foods while cookies are held in reserve as “sometime” food. And almost every episode has a subliminal message about exercise and nutrition, along with a fruit bowl.
So much carb consciousness raising makes it all the more incongruous that McDonald’s is a “Sesame Street” corporate sponsor — perhaps the most overt sign of changing mores. It was a financially driven decision, made in 2003 after public television loosened its restrictions on sponsors’ promotional efforts.
“Sesame Street” no longer has a monopoly on growing minds; if anything, it is an endangered species. There are now scores of preschool shows, and some of them also are shown without ads, like “Playhouse Disney.” Not surprisingly, fewer children are watching “Sesame Street,” but most children are watching more television than ever: a recent Nielsen Company study showed that on average children ages 2 to 5 now spend nearly 25 hours a week watching TV and an additional 7 hours either watching taped shows and DVDs or sitting in front of a computer. The top-rated show in that age group in the month of September, according to Nielsen, was “Go, Diego, Go!” on Nickelodeon. “Sesame Street” trailed far behind.
To help cover costs “Sesame Street” reached out to family-friendly sponsors like Beaches resorts and Earth’s Best organic baby foods.
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