Tuned In

How Sesame Street Taught Kids to Watch TV

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Sesame Street celebrates its 40th anniversary today, and as I noted last week, some fans of Fox News have been marking the occasion by suddenly getting offended over a two-year-old sketch from the show. One point I neglected to make in my post, but that should be obvious, is that complaining about Sesame Street doing a skit about you is like complaining about Saturday Night Live doing one. Why consider it a bad thing? It’s the surest sign that you’ve arrived.

In fact, while I’m sure plenty of 40th-anniversary remembrances will honor Sesame for teaching kids to read, to count, to deal with emotional issues and so on, as far as Tuned In’s concerned, one of the show’s greatest contributions has been to acknowledge the media world that kids (and their parents) are immersed in, and thus, to teach kids to navigate it. As much as anything else, Sesame Street is a TV show about how to watch TV.

Sesame Street’s media savviness developed in service of its traditional educational goals rather than the other way around: it taught lessons using settings that were familiar to its audience, and what’s more familiar to an audience of TV-watching kids than TV? So from roving reporter Kermit (above) to Guy Smiley to the various game show, drama and commercial parodies it’s done over the years, Sesame has used the language of TV to reach and teach.

But I like to think that, in some small way, Sesame also taught kids to be smarter media consumers, and that this was as valuable a service as teaching the alphabet. By spoofing TV, the show didn’t just captivate kids; it also taught by example that a news show or an entertainment show has its own rules and conventions—it taught kids that shows are shows, performed by people for cameras, and not reality. It deflated the pomposity of news anchors for kids, and showed them by referencing the traditions of commercial TV (“brought to you by the number 8,” etc.) that TV is in the business of selling you things. From Sesame, it was a logical progression to the behind-the-scenes showbiz comedy of The Muppet Show.

Sesame Street began in 1969 as a kids’ show fully conscious of the fact that it wasn’t the only TV its audience would be watching—that its fans were exposed to far more other media, for better and worse. One of the best educational choices the show has made over the years is not to ignore that media saturation but to embrace it. Four decades later, I hope it’s helped to raise not just generations of better readers, but media consumers more conscious about everything that’s brought to them by the letters T and V.

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