Television: Who's Afraid of Big, Bad TV?

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Mrs. Cooney consulted such diverse experts as psychologists and children's book illustrators. Dr. Edward L. Palmer, formerly an associate research professor in Oregon's state education system, worked with children across the country for 18 months, studying attention spans, areas of interest, eye movements. He and his researchers found that the most efficacious approach to learning fused the switches of commercial TV, the quick cuts from animate to live action. Transitions were out. "We learned that what bores kids is too much time spent on any one subject," said Palmer. Also, "Sit and talk straight at them, and children think you're giving them Walter Cronkite."

So there is no anchor man on Sesame Street. Children wander through stores and around sidewalks, skipping rope and chatting with the hosts. Learning seems almost a byproduct of fun. Why lecture kids when you can wrap the lesson in a joke? Example: the cast passes around a Styrofoam letter J. Each one repeats, "J," until the object reaches Cookie Monster. He booms: "D." The cast choruses: "D?" Monster: "Licious!" And he eats it. Guest teachers drop in all the time. Laugh-ln's Arte Johnson, in his traditional German helmet, discusses height: "Tall people bump their heads a lot and short people don't." Carol Burnett describes the various virtues of the nose, forgets one, and then remembers­just in time to sneeze. James Earl Jones recites the alphabet­so slowly that the kids impatiently shout the letters at the screen.

Sesame Street has the aura of ad lib, the spontaneity of a playground game with celebrities and characters. In fact, it is as meticulously planned as a semester at medical school. From Palmer's research department, program subjects flow to the production office, then get channeled to Head Writer Jeff Moss, a veteran of the Captain Kangaroo show. Three weeks before taping, Moss and his writers develop a script. Theoretically, their ideal viewer is poor and culturally deprived. Actually, the show catches the preschooler almost before his society does. Thus Sesame Street is as popular with the well-to-do as it is with the slum dweller. The kids may spark to the astonishing variety of material, but no sketch is without its preordained aim. A game is played under the academic umbrella of "Environment and Multiple Classification." Jet-plane and subway sound effects are listed under "Auditory Discrimination." Big Bird settling an argument is designated "Different Perspectives."

When it is polished to a sheen, the written material goes to the puppeteers and the live actors, who customarily work on separate days­except for Oscar and Big Bird, who mix readily with humans. Five tape machines are used to record and edit the show­and to mix in the animation that was done earlier in Hollywood. About two weeks later, the show is aired, bloopers and all. Indeed, Producer Jon Stone is rather proud of the bloopers. When a kid on the show asked Folk Singer Leon Bibb in mid-chant, "How come you're sweatin'?," it was left in.

Strong Father Figure

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