Sesame Street kicks off its 40th anniversary season today (Tuesday, November 10) with a guest appearance from first lady Michelle Obama. Ricky Gervais, featured in this outtake video, will be on later in the season (with a modified script!).
Sesame Street is the longest-running children's program on US television and, over the years, it has won 122 Emmy Awards as well as a lifetime achievement award. It's been going long enough that its first generation of viewers now have children of their own who watch the show.
What can we learn from Sesame Street's incredible success? Like any standout, there are some special circumstances, tough to bottle and repeat. When it launched, it was a show that was in the right place at the right time with the right people. But perhaps there's something to learn from its ability to survive and thrive all these years?
As Seth Godin has pointed out, many organizations fail to keep delivering exceptional experiences over time: "Here's a rule that's so inevitable that it's almost a law: As an organization grows and succeeds, it sows the seeds of its own demise by getting boring. With more to lose and more people to lose it, meetings and policies become more about avoiding risk than providing joy."
Sesame Street has avoided that fate, finding new ways every year to keep the show joyous. Through, I think:
1) Sticking to a mission with a few, core, strong values: In the case of Sesame Street, it's making learning fun with equality, tolerance and hope. The mission and values lie at the heart of the organization, provide its purpose and ambition and have helped guide its path as times have changed.
2) Keeping things fresh, dynamic: The death knell of TV shows is often the over-pursuit of "fresh" as writers burn though every possible angle to keep things hotter than hot. Sesame Street has managed to keep the energy flowing without boiling over. Great guest stars help.
3) Balancing tradition vs. change: Over the years, Sesame Street has managed to respect its traditions without being imprisoned by them. Malcolm Gladwell said that the essence of Sesame Street is: "The artful blend of fluffy monsters and earnest adults." That's still there but, over time, much else has changed from this season's hip-hop beat for the theme song "Sunny Day" to the use of computer-generated-imagery animation and many other changes to format and curriculum.
4) Fostering team commitment: Many people on the show have been there since the early days. Carroll Spinney still gives life to Big Bird and Frank Biondo has been a camera operator on the show from the first episode. Creator Joan Ganz Cooley, now 79, is still board chairman. Such continuity helps the show stay focused on its original mission and has protected it from the "lets start over" mentality that's often the route of constantly-changing teams.
5) Delivering the goods: If Sesame Street didn't deliver on its goal to help children learn, it would never have survived this long. There have been over 1,000 studies on its educational influence that would have exposed significant flaws. From the beginning, the show has described its curriculum in terms of measurable outcomes and then used research to test its performance. Many of the changes to the show's structure and content have come from these research findings.
6) Staying focused: Finally, Sesame Street has always targeted a very narrow band of customers, specifically 2-4 year-olds and their parents. The show has resisted the temptation to branch off from this tight demographic. Growth and business development has instead come from licensing (over 100,000 products) and market expansion (more than 120 countries internationally).
Happy 40th, Sesame Street!
More Muppets tributes and stuff:
1) Can the Muppets Make Friends in Ramallah: The New York Times
Sesame Street has developed 26 international co-productions. These co-productions are adapted for the local audience with local actors, themes and settings. This article explores the particular challenge of developing a show for Palestinian kids, realistic enough to resonate to them while sticking to the show's core values of optimism and tolerance
2) 101 Muppets of Sesame Street: National Post
All the characters from all the years in one handy, visual guide. Pretty amazing. Source: Muppet Wiki from Wikia (also amazing in its own way)
3) Sesame Street, Droid get Google's love: CNET News
Big Bird, Bert and Ernie are some of the characters featured so as doodles on Google's home page over the last few days. Bert and Ernie had to share their time with the Droid.