Cinema and Media Studies Sesame Street
Kathryn Ostrofsky
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 April 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0308


Since its 1969 premiere, Sesame Street has become one of the most iconic programs in television history. Through its forty-eight seasons (and counting), and more than 4,400 episodes, it has linked the cultural experiences of generations of Americans of diverse backgrounds through enduring characters, memorable songs, celebrity guests, humorous stories, and sketches that emphasize the fun and imaginative possibilities of learning. Sesame Street’s popularity and longevity alone render it worthy of study, but its importance to American culture and society reaches far beyond the television screen. This is because Sesame Street is more than just a television program: it is the public face of a bold experiment in using television as an instrument of social and cultural change. Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett conceived of the experiment during the height of President Lyndon Johnson’s push for a Great Society in the mid-1960s, when much public discourse centered on how to mobilize social science research and expand educational opportunities to address the pressing issues of poverty and racial inequality. In 1968, Cooney and Morrisett founded an independent nonprofit organization, CTW or the Children’s Television Workshop (renamed in 1998 Sesame Workshop), to serve as a production company for experimental television programs, a research laboratory for studying how young audiences learned from television, and a social service organization to train volunteers and disseminate teaching materials to help parents and teachers enrich learning experiences of underserved children’s home and daycare activities. Sesame Street has been described as the most thoroughly researched program in the history of television, and indeed the circumstances of CTW’s activities render it particularly fertile ground for academic study because of the wealth of documentation it generated. Each season, its researchers and advisors constructed a curriculum based on current needs of preschoolers. Producers then created content to convey those goals, and researchers observed children’s reactions and measured their learning in order to provide feedback on how to improve the program. Sesame Street’s status as public television required that CTW’s staff constantly discussed their motivations, methods, and outcomes to justify continued funding, while parents, educators, and critics felt they could and should contribute their own suggestions for helping the show better serve its audience. Because both the producers’ intent and the audience’s reactions are exceptionally well documented, and because the program was designed to reflect the changing American social and cultural climate, Sesame Street presents unparalleled opportunities for humanities and social sciences scholarship.

General Overviews and Reference Sources

Sesame Street has become an American cultural institution in part because of the nostalgia it evokes. The mere mention of characters like Big Bird or Bert and Ernie, of songs like “One of These Things” or “C is for Cookie,” evokes in generations of Americans the nostalgia for childhood, as well as for the popular culture of bygone decades. It reached over 90 percent of the nation’s preschoolers for its first few decades, making it one of the few common cultural experiences shared by most Americans born in the late 20th century. By one estimate, it has reached a cumulative audience of about 200 million Americans. The program was designed specifically to be entertaining for adults as well, to encourage parents and caregivers to watch along with preschoolers to further aid their learning. To ensure that adults and older children would enjoy Sesame Street enough to “co-view” with youngsters, producers infused the program with humor, music, celebrity guests, and pop-culture references that made it a unique reflection of our broader cultural history and attracted both widespread casual interest and a cult following. Thus, the general overviews and reference sources are primarily intended for a popular audience. Borgenicht 1998 and Gikow 2009 celebrated Sesame Street at its thirtieth and fortieth anniversaries. The Sesame Workshop website, aimed at parents and the press, has information about recent seasons and current efforts. The most comprehensive and accurate reference source for Sesame Street is the Muppet Wiki, a crowd-sourced encyclopedia with over 33,000 pages, including guides to nearly 1500 episodes and over 1600 characters from Sesame Street. Muppet Wiki’s impressive accuracy has made it a frequently used reference source for scholars, authors, and Sesame Workshop itself, due to its moderators’ careful use of archival documentation.

  • Borgenicht, David. Sesame Street Unpaved: Scripts, Stories, Secrets, and Songs. New York: Hyperion, 1998.

    Basic information on characters and celebrity guests, behind-the-scenes explanations of puppets and performers, and scripts and stills of memorable scenes. Intended for fans. See Muppet Wiki for list of errata.

  • Gikow, Louise A. Sesame Street: A Celebration: 40 Years of Life on the Street: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the People, Puppets, Songs, Scripts, and Show. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2009.

    Descriptions of production and outreach, based on interviews and author’s knowledge as Sesame Street writer. Organized thematically to cover different contributors to (cast, puppeteer, celebrity guest) and elements of (music, art, film) the program; accompanied by a wealth of archival photographs. Intended for fans.

  • Sesame Workshop. 4 December 2008.

    Official website of Sesame Street’s production company, Sesame Workshop. Information about current programs and initiatives, recent press releases, and financial statements.

  • The Muppet Wiki. 5 December 2005.

    Extensive and meticulously curated fan-created encyclopedia of projects related to Jim Henson’s Muppets. Continually updated and expanded, the site includes information drawn from archival documents, interviews, and video, about specific Sesame Street episodes, characters, production and performance personnel, and merchandise.

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