Surely there are no forgotten minorities left in the U.S.? Well, there is at least one, 12 million strong, and it has every right to march downtown and protest. Trouble is, the members are not allowed to cross the street. They are preschool children, ages three to five. Unable to discern the mindlessness of Huckleberry Hound and Heckle and Jeckle, they have been forced to sit there and kill time since TV began.
This week the National Educational Television network began to do something for that forgotten minority with the first segment of Sesame Street. A color series to run one hour every weekday for the next 6½ months, Sesame's 130 segments are dedicated to the proposition that children are people, involved in their own quest for enlightenment and entertainment via the video set.
Barrage of Sights. What Sesame Street does, blatantly and unashamedly, is take full advantage of what children like best about TV. "Face itkids love commercials," explains Joan Ganz Cooney, executive director of NET's Children's Television Workshop. "Their visual impact is way ahead of everything else seen on television; they are clever, and they tell a simple, self-contained story." Instead of cornflakes and Kleenex, Sesame Street sells the alphabet, numbers, ideas and concepts in commercial form. Each program contains a dozen or more 12- to 90-second spots, many repeated during the program to boost retention. Some are based on a sort of psychedelic flash card system that assaults young minds with a pleasant barrage of sights, sounds and colors repeated over and over. Often the Muppets, ingenious hand puppets with all the comfortable soft sell of a favorite doll, talk about ideas. Short film clips are also used to great advantage, sometimes with bouncy bubble-gum rock music in the background.
Numbers are a part of every segment, brightly illustrated by animations and films. Letters are also featured. On the first program, the letter W was the focus of a segment involving Wanda the Witch, Who Walked to the Well one Wednesday in Winter to get Water to Wash her Wig. The Wig was Whipped away by a Wild Wind. Moral: "Witches Who Wash their Wigs on Windy Winter Wednesdays are Wacky."
Between these "commercials," the kids follow the inhabitants of Sesame Street: Gordon and Susan, a black science teacher and his wife (Matt Robinson and Loretta Long); Mr. Hooper, owner of the neighborhood candy store (Will Lee); Bob (Bob McGrath), another teacher; and Buddy and Jim (Brandon Maggart and James Catusi), two bumblers who teach lessons in logic through their own laughable illogic.
Minimum Verbiage. "Actually, it all began at a dinner party I gave," says Mrs. Cooney. Among the guests at that February 1966 party was Lloyd Morrisett, then vice-president of the Carnegie Corporation. "Something clicked in Lloyd's mind," says Mrs. Cooney. "Television and preschoolers. Was I interested?" By November her report was ready: "Spend a lot of money on this," she recommended.
Supported by $8,000,000 from the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, the U.S. Office of Education and other Government agencies, Sesame Street is one of the best-researched programs in television history.