Entertainment Assesment: The portrayal of race, gender and social class on Sesame Street & the Electric Company
On October 18, 1990, Congress got involved in children’s television programming. One of the primary goals of The Children’s Television Act [CTA] was to increase the quantity of educational/informational broadcast television programming for children. The Federal Communication Commission [FCC] defines that further. Children 16 years of age and under are to get at least three hours per week of core programs. These programs must be 30 minutes in length; air between the hours of 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m.; and be a regularly scheduled weekly program. (Children’s Educational Television, FCC, 2010) The FCC states that the programming must meet “intellectual/cognitive or social/emotional needs.” Additionally, the FCC limits commercial matter on network and cable outlets, such as the National Broadcasting Company [NBC], the American Broadcasting Company [ABC], and the Central Broadcasting Company [CBS], to 10.5 minutes/hour on weekdays and 12 minutes/hour on weekends. These commercial restrictions do not apply to non-commercial television platforms, such as the Public Broadcasting System [PBS] because they are generally prohibited from airing commercials. (Children’s Educational Television, FCC, 2010)
When the phenomenon of television first debuted there were two options regarding its’ operation. It could have been government owned, as in England, or it could have been commercial, as it is in the United States. According to the book, Media Messages (Holtzman, 2000) the moneymaking nature of commercial television, means that its’ content is “largely dictated by economic forces and desires for profit.” Holtzman counters with the idea that programming content might be different if a “government, quasi-government agency or an independent nonprofit organization such as PBS operated television.” (Holtzman, 2000, p. 39) To see that thought in action we could compare the children’s educational/instructional programming available on commercial network and cable, to that of PBS. However, there is no comparable comparison.
Commercial broadcasting nearly dropped all of their educational programs when the federal government deregulated the industry in the mid 1980’s. As a result, the federal government stepped back in 1990 with the CTA. Today most commercial broadcasting companies choose to fulfill these requirements by scheduling shows that focus more on social situations and less on education. In fact, according to an article titled, NBC: We’re out of kids TV, too (White, 2001), “NBC, CBS, ABC, & Fox have given up their kids programming to cable partners.”ABC & CBS still maintains a Saturday morning line-up for kids but its’ programming is borrowed from sister companies Nickelodian & Disney. Because of this vertical integration of media outlets, networks can fulfill their FCC obligation without producing original work.
NBC cites difficulty in reaching the teenage demographic as the reason they chose to lease out its Saturday morning children’s programming to Discovery Networks. Discovery will borrow its content from their own Discovery Kids or Animal Planet programs. The above mentioned article, NBC: We’re out of kids TV, too (White, 2001) explains that Discovery may provide some content for kids ages six to eleven but the majority of programs will be for kids ages nine to fourteen. It is Discovery’s intent to “bundle its NBC programs with kid-oriented shows on its other networks as a package for advertisers.” They feel it will “propel them into competition with Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network for the kids market.” The priority networks and cable place on selling to children versus providing genuine educational material is clear. By comparison, PBS has a different agenda.
Sesame Street is a PBS program and a product of the Sesame Workshop. Recently celebrating its 40th anniversary, it has a proven record of accomplishment and educational appeal. Positive portrayals of race, gender, and social class, are evident in the diverse cast. Emilio Delgado (Luis) and Sonia Manzano (Luis’s wife, Maria) are two of the first Hispanic characters positively portrayed in television media. On the show, “Marie” is quite handy with electronics and anything mechanical, which defies traditional race & gender stereotypes. In real life, Sonia Manzano also writes for Sesame Street. Sesame Workshop.com reports that she has received 15 Emmy awards. (Cast Bio, 2008)
Roscoe Orman (Gordon) is a strong African-American male role model. Roscoe and Loretta Long (Gordon’s wife, Susan) have been happily married on the show for many years. Olamide Faison (Miles) is their adopted son. Together these three characters present a successful, loving, and united family. Bob McGrath (Bob), a white male, is one of four original cast members. Always ready to sing, Bob has received the National Association of Music Educators Fame Award for furthering the cause of music education. Asian-American actor, Alan Muraoka (Alan) is of Japanese descent. He joined the ensemble eight years ago as the proprietor of Mr. Hooper’s store, the heart of Sesame Street. (Cast Bio, 2008)
Will Lee (Mr. Hooper) played the role of the slightly cranky, Jewish shop owner until his death in December of 1982. Lee’s passing was difficult on all the cast members, he was beloved by his co-workers and children of all ages. His passing presented the Workshop team with a challenge. How would they handle the sensitive issue of death with their audience of children? In what would prove to be a continued commitment to children’s education, Sesame memorialized Mr. Hooper in an episode that took on “the tricky business of explaining death to preschoolers.” (Davis, 2009, p. 281) The result was a truly memorable show. Considered a landmark in children’s television programming, it won a Daytime Emmy Award for outstanding writing. This program exemplifies Sesame’s dedication to teaching our children, even when the subject matter is difficult to explain. Specific episodes and specials have addressed 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the recent economic downturn and the very delicate subject of parental death.
With the help of psychologists, religious leaders, educators, and other credible sources, writers carefully craft each episode, further demonstrating Sesame’s commitment to our children. The cast and writers are just two parts of this amazing effort. No conversation about Sesame Street is complete without the iconic muppets. Part puppet and part marionette, “muppets” were created and licensed by Jim Henson. Generations of children have embraced Big Bird, Cookie Monster, Grover, Bert and Ernie, Elmo and Abby Cadabby. The magical quality that the muppets bring to the Sesame message is what makes it internationally appealing. In over 120 countries around the world, Sesame Street uses their muppets in a socially responsible way, portraying race, gender, and social-class within each culture’s landscape.
In 2002, South Africa’sTakalani Sesame introduced the world’s first HIV-positive muppet. “The number of orphans who have lost their parents to AIDS is expected to approach 2 million by 2010.” (Hawthorne, September 22, 2002)So, “Kami,” a perky, fun, schoolgirl was introduced to children in 104, 30 minute, episodes. “Kami” helps children & adults understand HIV. She also helps combat negative stereotypes associated with people who have HIV. In Canada, “Katie” encourages positive attitudes about physical disability by zipping around in a wheel chair. While across the globe, Chinese children have “Xiao Me Zi” a female preschooler, who encourages girl power and self-esteem. In Egypt, “Khokha” a female muppet helps girls excel in school. Proving that friendship knows no political or religious boundaries, “Dafi & Haneen,” are Jewish and Arab friends in Israel and Palestine. (Hawthorne, September 22, 2002)
Because of the global reach of television and Sesame Street’s 40 successful years, it is impossible to calculate how many children have been educated academically and socially since the show first began. To say that Sesame Street is an icon, a legend in children’s television programming, is stating the obvious. However, there is another Sesame Workshop production available on PBS with a successful and impressive history, the Electric Company. Originally created as the next step for the children aging out of Sesame Street, theElectric Company surged into American households in 1971, with what was to become an iconic phrase, “Hey you guys!” This energizing call across generations brought a hip, new voice, to educational television. Using pop culture to teach children how to read, the original program combined music, comedy and the latest special effects to electrify children with the motivation to learn. PBS.org states that thirty-five percent of elementary schools used the Electric Company in the classroom. (Educational Philosophy, 2010) The message was so well received, and so relevant, that in 2009, PBS re-introduced theElectric Company.
In keeping with Sesame Street, race, gender, and social diversity, have always been part of theElectric Company formula. PBS.org provides the details. In the first two seasons, four cast members were African-American, two were Latino, and three were white. The cast was comprised of five males and four females. Morgan Freeman, Bill Cosby, Rita Moreno and Lee Chambers are the most well-know cast members from the original production. The new cast represents diversity equally well. There are three African-American male characters, two Latino male characters, one Latino female character, three white female characters, and one white male character. Unlike their original counterparts, the new characters each possess a “singular magical ability to produce, control, manipulate, and play with words and letters.” (Electric Company, Character Bio, 2010)
On the new Electric Company, characters square off into two groups based on how they use their magical literacy abilities. PBS.org describes the cast and characters like this: Ricky Smith (Keith) is a 13-year old African-American male. He is upbeat, charming, and confident. His literacy ability allows him to create pictures from words. Priscilla Diaz (Jessica) is a young, problem-solving, Latino female and her ability allows her to replay and display in text, anything she has heard. Josh Segarra (Hector) is “Jessica’s” older brother. His literacy ability gives him super-human observational skills, which also helps in problem solving. Jenni Barber (Lisa) is a white female high school student who can solve any type of word problem with lightening speed. These four cast members form a club known as the Electric Company. They use their special abilities to help solve problems that are usually the result of the “pranksters”. (Electric Company, Character Bio, 2010)
The “pranksters” prefer to keep things chaotic and use their literary abilities to cause problems. Ashley Morris (Francine) is a white female high school student who is obsessed with popularity. She wants to be the president of the Electric Company. She has the basic letter throwing skills that the rest of the characters have but her biggest influence is that she is wealthy and therefore can do just about anything she wants. Sandi Rosa (Annie) is a white female student who can scramble any message into a literary mess. Will Harper (Danny) is an African American male who creates havoc by turning everything into word riddles. Dominic Colon (Manny) is Latino male and a technological whiz. All his gadgets and gears keep the Electric Company quite busy. These four characters often provide the audience with examples of how not to behave, in a way that children can appreciate. (Electric Company, Character Bio, 2010)
Much like Sesame Street and the original Electric Company, educational content is conveyed using many elements of pop culture – music, comedy, technology, and real-life celebrities. These make the show a hip, multimedia experience. One thing that is different from the original Electric Company is the use of a narrative. Each episode’s narrative introduces vocabulary in a way that is both educational and enjoyable for children. “Curriculum commercial breaks” consisting of short sketches, animations, and music, reinforce phonics, text, and motivational goals. (PBS.org, Educational Philosophy, 2010)
As Scott Cameron, Director of Education, and Research for Sesame Workshop points out, “children in low-income families enter kindergarten having heard up to 30 million fewer words than their peers in working-class and professional families.” He adds, “…it seems obvious, but if you teach a child how to sound out the word cope, it won’t get them very far if they don’t know what the word cope means.” (Electric Company FAQ, 2010) Phonics and comprehension are integral parts of Sesame Street, and both versions of the Electric Company.
Both Sesame Street and the Electric Company were born from Children’s Television Workshop, now referred to as Sesame Workshop. Each program has contributed greatly to the positive portrayal of race, gender, and social-class. The audience age may differ slightly but the educational commitment and dedication to the children are 100% the same. This caliber of programming cannot be found on commercial television networks or cable. This must be what Linda Holtzman (2001) was seeing when she commented that television content might be improved if a non-profit organization like PBS was the model for network programming.
In his book Culture Jam, author Kalle Lasn (1999) states, “American broadcasting isn’t an Orwellian-state-controlled system. It’s a commercial, corporate-controlled system…” but when the commercial and corporate side monopolize the industry and strangle the content then the consequences can be stifling. Lasn (1999) adds, “I don’t want commercialism to be completely purged from broadcasting. But it can’t be the one and only voice.” According to Lasn (1999), “in today’s media environment, advertisers rule—the sponsor is king.” Even PBS isn’t immune to the pressure. “The PBS flagship NewsHour, which is underwritten by Archer Daniels Midland, conveniently ignored the agribusiness giant’s price-fixing scandal throughout 1995.” (Lasn, 1999)
In accordance with PBS standards, both Sesame Street and the Electric Company publicly announce their sponsors. PBS has strict guidelines on what a sponsor can say or do. For example, McDonald’s and Sesame Street recently parted ways after years of affiliation. This sponsorship was a point of contention for many activists because of Sesame’s focus on promoting healthy eating habits for children. Yet according to an article on DailyFinance.com, none of the sponsorship messages “showed product, announced promotions, contained any call to action, or featured any Sesame Street characters.” (Berr, 2010)
PBS’s non-profit culture has helped cultivate the success of Sesame Street and the Electric Company by not restricting content for the sake of selling product to children. They remain beacons of what television content can be like when people with a genuine desire to improve the world, spark our imagination instead of dumbing it down. PBS isn’t infallible but Sesame Street and the Electric Company stand as proof of what television can be, given the right people and the right organization.
Berr, J. (March 23, 2010). McDonald’s Quietly Closes Up Shop on ‘Sesame Street’. DailyFinance.com. Retrieved from http://www.dailyfinance.com/story/company-news/mcdonalds-quietly-closes-up-shop-on-sesame-street/19411150/
Davis, M. (2008). Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street. New York. Viking
Hawthorne, P. (September 22, 2002). Time Magazine. Positively Sesame Street. Retrieved from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,901020930-353521,00.html
Holtzman, L. (2000). Media Messages: What Film, Television, And Popular Music Teach Us About Race, Class, Gender, And Sexual Orientation. Armonk. M.E. Sharpe.
Lasn, K. (1999). Culture Jam: How to Reverse America’s Suicidal Consumer Binge—And Why We Must. New York. Quill.
Cast Bios. Sesame Workshop. Sesame Street. Retrieved from http://www.sesameworkshop.org/inside/pressroom/season40/cast
Character Bios. Sesame Workshop. Electric Company. Retrieved from http://www.sesameworkshop.org/inside/pressroom/tec/characters
Children’s Educational Television. FCC Consumer Facts. Retrieved from http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/childtv.html
Educational Philosophy. PBS.org. Electric Company. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/parents/electriccompany/educational-philosophy.html
Frequently Asked Questions. Electric Company. Retrieved from http://www.pbs.org/parents/electriccompany/frequently-asked-questions.html
White, E. (December 7, 2001) NBC: We’re out of kids TV, too; Turning Saturdays over to Discovery Networks. Media Life.