Exclusive Interview: The Magical World of Sesame Street

Following the launch of the Palestinian version of Sesame Street, UNESCO caught up with Gary Knell, the President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, to find out more about one of the world's best loved children's programmes.

Gary Knell and Elmo, © Sesame Workshop


What are the main values Sesame Workshop conveys and how do you think they coincide with UNESCO's values of peace, respect for diversity and solidarity?

Sesame Street was founded in the late 1960s in the United States when the country was going through a very difficult period.  Not only was there was a controversial war but there were also racial tensions in the inner cities and many children were in poverty. Sesame Street was really an attempt to use the techniques of television, which was the most popular media at the time, to give children a better preparation for school and improve their chances of success.

The founders of Sesame Workshop did a brilliant thing: they focused on what we call 'the whole child curriculum', which includes not only on cognitive development, such as literacy and numeracy, but also health issues, including basic hygiene, oral health as well as social and emotional understanding.

They promoted tolerance and diversity, which in the US was conceived in terms of race and ethnic relations.  The show was centred on a common street which had African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and muppets all living together.  This was controversial: the first year the show was actually banned in the state of Mississippi because it had an inter-racial neighbourhood.

So I think that when you project forward to today, many of the issues that UNESCO is promoting around tolerance and diversity are still directly relevant to what we're trying to do. Sesame Street in its different versions around the world has built on this foundation as it tries to improve children's lives no matter where they are.

As you say, it has been over thirty years since Sesame Street began in the US.  In the current age of videogames and the Internet, do you think that television is still a useful means to educate children and pass on the values you've been talking about?

Children today have much more media exposure than they certainly did when I was growing up in the 1960s.  Today media is ubiquitous and what that really means is that children in the so-called industrialised world are confronted by media everywhere, in terms of satellite, broadband penetration and cellphones.  They will never know a world before the Internet or cellphones.

Having said this, we do still find that television is a very powerful purveyor of content for the youngest children, as are DVDs, even though TV is evolving into a more on-demand type of service to fit into peopleís schedules.

We do definitely keep up with the times in terms of video games and the Internet.  Sesame Street has been pretty actively engaged in all of those things because we view them as learning tools, as opposed to just passive experiences for children.

What is the key to the programme's success after so many years?

It's first and foremost a programme which engages and entertains children through humour, music and the muppets, which have a magical effect. Itís through this kind of engagement and using popular forms of media that children and their parents have connected with the show.  So itís really the creativity around the show that has kept it fresh over the last 38 years.

We view ourselves as an educational organization that happens to use television and other media as the base of our engagement. So we have staff who are educators and others who are creative and we somehow build a partnership within Sesame Workshop which comes out on these wonderful programmes that my colleagues produce.

You attended the launch for Shara'a Simsim in Ramallah, Palestine in April.  Could you tell us more how Palestinian children have reacted to the new series?

It's just started so we'll find out but I think the answer will be yes if the reactions from the 300 or so children who were at the launch in Ramallah a couple of weeks ago are any indication.

I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the input of UNESCO's Global Alliance for Cultural Diversity and the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation who helped make this happen by supporting a training workshop for the producers and writers in Ramallah.  This helped connect important educational lessons with production.  Weíre very much appreciative of the contribution that UNESCO and Spain made to the project, along with a couple of other funders including the Dutch, the Canadians and the Ford Foundation.

We're very excited about the show and I think what's most interesting about this and whatís so different is that it is a local programme that has a very local accent.

What is the main focus of this 'local accent' in Shara'a Simsim, especially given that Palestine is a conflict-stricken territory?

Before I answer that question, one thing I would like to make clear is that this is not an American show that's being sort of imposed on the Palestinian territories or other countries around the world.  These are indigenous programmes that are locally developed, produced by local people, local writers, local actors, local musicians and local puppeteers.  What we do is help train them on the techniques of television and how to apply education to an entertainment medium.  It's really their show to produce.

In Palestine, our co-production partners at Al Quds University in Ramallah and our educational advisors helped us develop a curriculum that aimed to bring self-esteem to young Palestinian boys who too often are depicted in media in very negative stereotypes and as having a very negative future.  Anyone who knows about conflict resolution will tell you that the first element of conflict resolution is about self-esteem because if you don't feel good about yourself, youíre not going to feel good about anyone else.

Showing some of the wonderful scenes from Palestinian culture, basic things like building a bicycle, how to be active in school and be a progressive member of a community and helping other children with disabilities Ė these kinds of things are not portrayed very often on local Palestinian television.  What we're able to do is, through the power of the medium, just show people another view of what life is really like.  It's a view that maybe doesn't really get covered as much on the news everyday but is really something that will help give a strong impression to young children who, after all, are not born to hate.  That is something they learn as they grow older.  So to sum up, what we're trying to do in this particular co-production in Palestine is focus on basic literacy and self-esteem, especially for boys.

Is there an Israel version of Sesame Street?

There is and it's called Rechov Sumsum.  It is a different programme entirely, produced in Tel Aviv by partners at Hop! TV who have done a wonderful job at creating a show which focuses on diversity within Israel. For the first time this season includes an Arab-Israeli muppet named Mahboub who becomes a regular cast member of the show.  There are specific outreach materials and educational materials being developed in Arabic featuring this muppet for kindergartens in the Arab-Israeli neighbourhoods in the country.  The show also looks at immigrant groups including Ethiopians and Russians, so again itís all about respect for diversity.

What projects does Sesame Workshop have lined up?  Are you looking to continue your work in the Arab region?  Do you have plans to work in other conflict-stricken countries?

First in the Arab world, we've just celebrated a big ten-year anniversary in Egypt where Alam Simsim is the number one childrenís programme on state television. This year the show has a character named Khokha, a popular young girl muppet who promotes girls' education since 60% of the female population is illiterate.  She wants to grow up to be lawyer so she's a really great role model. 

We've also just launched a new season in Jordan called Hikayat Simsim, which is focused on basic literacy, the environment and other issues such as diversity within Jordan, since there is a big influx of Iraqis as well as the many Palestinians living there.

We are also developing some material for the Gulf with a couple of satellite broadcasters.  So we have a lot going on in the Arab world and we're very committed to continuing to work there.

As for post-conflict zones, we're also working in Kosovo on a programme that was actually initially helped along by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the UN Childrenís Fund (UNICEF).  Now we're working on a second season to try to humanise the Serb and Albanian experience within Kosovo, which as we know is very tense.

Finally, in Northern Ireland, we have given the go ahead to a first ever local version of Sesame Street which will be on the air we hope in February 2008.  We're going into production now with BBC Northern Ireland.  It'll be a programme that promotes citizenship for young children as the region emerges from the troubles of sectarianism for so many years.

We're very excited about engaging in these areas and we're looking forward to expanding our work further around the world.


Publication Date 23 May 2007

© 2007 - UNESCO