How ‘Sesame Street’ persuaded public television to act like a network

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A cast photo from the first season of "Sesame Street." Oscar the Grouch, seen under Bob's arm, was originally orange before being remade as a green puppet for the second season. Bert, Ernie and Big Bird were already major characters. Grover and Cookie Monster were far less developed and less differentiated from other blue monster Muppets.

Sesame Street has a long history of bringing people together. Modeling and encouraging interpersonal connections is built into the program’s fabric, and countless scenes have demonstrated and promoted positive social behaviors such as cooperation, sharing and helping.

The Children’s Television Workshop, the independent nonprofit production company founded to create Sesame Street, is also famous for instigating collaboration between social science researchers and entertainment professionals, with an in-house research team determining desired learning outcomes and testing whether the show’s segments were successfully conveying educational content. This relationship required a climate of mutual respect and constant discussion among staff, which CTW fostered in many ways.

But Sesame Street has also connected television stations. Even though Sesame Street was created by an independent entity, it was instrumental in bringing together educational stations around the nation and helped to facilitate the association between local public broadcasting entities and nascent national ones.

Sesame Street was created as an experiment in using television as a medium and delivery system for a public service: freely accessible preschool education. Founded in the late 1960s to fulfill the ideals of the Great Society (and partially funded by the U.S. Office of Education), its creators conceived the program as a tool to address poverty and racism. By offering early-childhood education through styles equally familiar to all races and classes of American children of the television era, they hoped Sesame Street could function like a nationwide, economically efficient Head Start, exposing millions of underserved urban and minority children to cognitive skills that would help them succeed in school. Academic success would increase a generation’s chances of escaping poverty, while a common television experience would help bridge cultural gaps that perpetuated prejudices. Sesame Street’s creators simultaneously framed the program as a long-awaited solution to Americans’ concerns about the quality and possibilities of television, an intervention into a public discussion that was still being shaped by Newton Minow’s 1961 “wasteland” speech.

Distribution was critical to the fulfillment of Sesame Street’s mission. In the words of CTW researcher Barbara Reeves, “No matter how effective the show would be in teaching the child, it had to reach him first.” And there was a real chance that Sesame Street would not reach its intended audience, because in 1969 educational television stations did not form an interconnected national network. At the time, many ETV stations broadcasted on UHF (ultra–high-frequency), which was more difficult to receive. Many impoverished urban minority families — Sesame Street’s target audience — were unable to tune in to those stations, as older-model television sets did not have UHF capability.

For its own survival and success, Sesame Street played a crucial role in bringing together the nation’s independent public television stations. In addition to this structural handicap, Sesame Street also had to overcome an image problem. Americans perceived educational television programs as primarily for classroom use, often low-budget and tedious — no competition for the stimulating sights and sounds of commercial shows. Most families had little reason to tune in. It was clear that a concerted publicity effort would be required in order for Sesame Street to reach its intended audience.

Hatch and Cooney devised a multifaceted publicity campaign to bring viewers to “Sesame Street.”

From the start, CTW founder Joan Ganz Cooney understood the need for publicity: The program’s initial budget reserved $1.2 million dollars for it. Cooney hired Robert A. Hatch, who had just taken several years’ leave from the public relations firm Carl Byoir & Associates to serve as director of public information for the Peace Corps and was reluctant to return to corporate accounts. Sesame Street offered Hatch an opportunity to apply his professional skills and experience toward positive ends.

The show’s open and generous use of public funding for publicity “astonished” Hatch. “In the Peace Corps,” he remembered, “I had to hide promotion money in recruiting, and recruiting had to be hidden in something called Public Affairs. The members of Congress wouldn’t allow us to have a recruiting arm, much less a propaganda arm, so we played all sorts of games for years in the government.” Perhaps Cooney realized that investing in publicity was essential to delivering a service that recipients would access voluntarily in a marketplace in which commercial entertainment competed for their attention.

One of Hatch’s first tasks was to connect the audience with the program. Hatch produced a flyer, he recalled in a 1991 interview for a CTW oral history, “that showed how to tune in UHF. And how to play around with the rabbit ears in order to get a decent signal.”

Hatch initially worked for CTW’s account at Byoir, but he was so effective that in 1972, once Sesame Street was enough of a success to expect continued production, the Workshop named him vice president for corporate affairs. In this position, he oversaw public information, station relations and development. That Hatch’s office sat directly across the hall from Cooney’s demonstrated the importance CTW placed upon publicity. Hatch’s background in journalism, including stints at the Salt Lake Tribune and the San Diego Union, prepared him particularly well to ensure that CTW maintained a high profile in the mainstream press.

For urban minority audiences beyond the usual reach of such periodicals, Cooney enlisted veteran community organizer Evelyn Payne Davis, who mobilized the black press and grassroots activist organizations to spread the word in their own neighborhoods. Davis understood that black communities in American cities were “probably more highly organized than any other community you can think of.” On the heels of the civil-rights movement and the community activism it inspired, many local groups already existed to serve the interests of urban communities. The Workshop took advantage of these activist networks by sending sound trucks down the streets of New York to promote Sesame Street. Volunteers from the National Association of Jewish Women and the National Association of Negro Women staffed the trucks and periodically stopped, previewed clips from the program and distributed pamphlets about how parents could use Sesame Street as a tool to help them teach their children.

Another critical piece of program promotion involved a concerted effort to convince stations to air Sesame Street. Robert A. Davidson had been a producer at Newark’s WNDT Channel 13, a precursor to today’s WNET, before joining the Workshop as Cooney’s executive assistant. To encourage station managers to adopt the program, Cooney and Davidson made personal visits to ETV stations around the country. For stations unconnected by a network, airing a show nationwide involved “bicycling” tapes from station to station to run at different days and times in each locality. In order for Hatch to conduct a nationwide campaign to inform viewers of the existence and purpose of the program, however, Sesame Street needed to air in a uniform time slot nationwide. In other words, educational television stations around the country needed to behave like a network, at least at 9 a.m. on weekdays.

Eight o’clock was out, because CTW refused to compete with Captain Kangaroo, the existing children’s program they most respected. Snagging the nine o’clock slot, however, required that Cooney and Davidson sell local teachers on the concept of Sesame Street and how important preschool education could be to them, as it would cut into the time that educational stations aired programs for elementary classroom use.

In that first year, if an educational station refused to air Sesame Street in that time slot, CTW offered the program to a commercial station in that market on the condition that no advertisements would air during the show. Cooney and Davidson visited 180 stations and kept in close contact with those in 30 metropolitan areas. Davidson reported that they came to agreements with about half of the stations, which reached about 60 percent of the U.S. population, mostly in metropolitan areas (though not Pittsburgh, which began airing another new program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, in that morning slot).

The final piece of publicity before Sesame Street’s debut was to capture the attention of national news outlets so they would create enough anticipation for the show, urging viewers to seek it out once it premiered. Joan Ganz Cooney became the darling of the New York Times beginning on March 22, 1968, when she managed to get herself profiled as a “Woman in the News” on the same day television critic Jack Gould gave front-page ink to Cooney’s press conference to announce the creation of the Children’s Television Workshop. In response to that initial press conference, rival programming executives Mike Dann from CBS and Paul Klein from NBC independently took time out of their bitter ratings battle in order to offer their advice and services to Cooney to aid an endeavor they found more noble than that which consumed their days.

Another press conference, one to announce the name of the much-anticipated program, ultimately proved more important for public broadcasting beyond Sesame Street. For a nationwide campaign to succeed, the program required not only a consistent time slot, it also needed a name.

Its creators put this off until the eleventh hour, unable to agree on a sufficiently descriptive yet powerful title. The Workshop turned this potential liability into a publicity opportunity. Davidson and Hatch staged an interconnected press conference to announce the name of the show, a practice with little precedent even among commercial shows and products. This involved setting up feeds to individual stations, mobilizing an “interconnect” that had been implemented the year before on Sunday evenings for the Public Broadcasting Laboratory, the first public television program to air nationwide. With reporters in the room and others watching the feed around the country, the press conference included a promotional film for the show — taped mostly before a name had been chosen, so Executive Producer Dave Connell had constructed it around a board meeting of puppet executives, themselves humorously unable to name the show until the very end, when one suggested Sesame Street.

The stunt worked, and commercial press coverage exploded around the November 10, 1969, premiere. In addition to newspaper and magazine attention, both ABC and CBS covered Sesame Street, and NBC aired a half-hour preview during prime time two days before the show’s debut. Cooney and Hatch had commercial media outlets clamoring to raise awareness of their noncommercial competitor. While CTW attracted producers, directors, performers and animators who, like Hatch himself, welcomed a venue to apply their talents to socially positive ends, promoting Sesame Street provided similar benefits through temporary association with the program. Not unlike corporate sponsors who underwrote ongoing series to build for themselves a reputation of public service, some of the goodwill rubbed off on the networks that promoted Sesame Street without their having to address the “vast wasteland” themselves. Meanwhile, for a new program on little-known channels, commercial media coverage guided millions of viewers as to where and how they could tune in to this new and exciting public television program, making Sesame Street’s instant success possible.

Even the failures by Davidson and Cooney in their quest for the 9 a.m. time slot turned into a boon for the ultimate success of both Sesame Street and, later, PBS. During its first season, Sesame Street aired on 16 commercial stations, some in markets with no educational stations, and others in places where they could not come to an agreement with the local educational stations. In New York, a major market and an early adopter of television, commercial broadcasters were using all the available VHF channels, forcing educational television onto UHF. Because New York’s public station, WNDT, declined the 9 a.m. slot, Sesame Street’s first season aired on WPIX Channel 11, an independent commercial station owned by the New York Daily News that broadcast on VHF. New York’s low-income families could thus find the new program more easily, and once they were hooked they had a reason to tune in to public television when Sesame Street became so wildly popular that WNDT caved and cleared the 9 a.m. slot in 1970.

Sesame Street soon reached market saturation due to these public relations efforts. An audience survey commissioned by CTW in 1970 found that 90 percent of families with preschoolers in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of New York and 80 percent in inner-city Chicago were watching the program regularly, and those numbers increased throughout the decade. Once Sesame Street had found its audience, CTW turned their public relations efforts toward “utilization,” shaping how viewers used the program. Through a steady stream of press releases about celebrity guests, Hatch ensured that Sesame Street continued to maintain a high profile in commercial media. He also initiated a cast tour, to bring the songs and games from the program to cities across the country through interactive live performances.

Meanwhile, Evelyn Davis led an outreach department at CTW that employed a network of regional coordinators and provided training, program guides and lesson plans to help parents and community volunteers use Sesame Street as a tool to infuse day care with educational content.

Although both aspects of Sesame Street public relations — the commercial media presence and the grassroots outreach — changed over the subsequent five decades, they remained crucial for CTW to carry out its mission of education and public service. Hatch earned four Silver Anvil Awards from the Public Relations Society of America for promoting the launches of Sesame Street and its CTW sister show The Electric Company, building large audiences for public television and designing Sesame Street’s 10th-anniversary celebrations.

Sesame Street’s instant success subsequently allowed PBS to take off. As the first successful nationwide public television program for a mass audience, it served as many families’ first exposure to noncommercial programming and their first reason to habitually turn the dial to a public channel. Sesame Street gave diverse educational stations something in common, a reason to interconnect as a network. It made public television’s leaders, staff, viewers and sponsors begin to think of PBS as a provider of children’s programming, which gave it a defined purpose to which Congress could justify devoting money.

Nonprofit and publicly supported projects are often skittish about promoting their services, wary of the delicate line they have to walk in order to inform the public of their existence without seeming to engage in either commercial advertising or government propaganda. Hatch, Cooney and Davidson were highly successful at that task, with profound consequences. If CTW had been as reticent about publicity as the Peace Corps had been, neither Sesame Street nor public television would have begun on such strong footing. One of the most important legacies of the Children’s Television Workshop, then, was that Sesame Street connected people and television stations in a way that enhanced the profile and reputation of public broadcasting at a time critical to the establishment of PBS as a national institution.

Kathryn A. Ostrofsky is instructor of history at Angelo State University in San Angelo, Texas. Her work on Sesame Street has been published in the Journal of Popular Music Studies and in Music in Comedy Television: Notes on Laughs, ed. Philip Hayward and Liz Giuffre (Routledge, 2017). Her book manuscript, Sounding It Out: How Sesame Street Crafted American Culture, is under contract with the University of California Press.

This essay appears as part of Rewind: The Roots of Public Media, Current’s series of commentaries about the history of public media. The series is created in partnership with the Radio Preservation Task Force, an initiative of the Library of Congress. Josh Shepperd, assistant professor of media studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and national research director of the RPTF, is Faculty Curator of the Rewind series. Email: [email protected]

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