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Sesame Street Goes Global, From HIV+ Muppet to Iraq War

Ker Than
for National Geographic News
November 5, 2009
 
Sesame Street, or at least Cookie Monster, is gobbling up the Google logo, hot on the hefty heels of Big Bird yesterday—apparently in anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the preschooler-oriented TV show's first airing on Tuesday.

But in many countries where local versions of Sesame Street air, such staple U.S. characters are all but unknown.

Instead, the public-TV franchise has gone global by going local. Each of the 140 versions of Sesame Street now airing is a reflection of the cultures and conflicts of its region, and the Muppets are custom-tailored to the kids watching.

In South Africa, for example, where hundreds of thousands of children have been orphaned by AIDS, an orange, pink-nosed female Muppet named Kami is HIV positive and helps educate children about the syndrome on Takalani Sesame.

And on Bangladesh's Sisimpur, purple, pigtailed Tuktuki teaches a classic Sesame Street lesson—that girls can have the same opportunities as boys.

In Japan, Mojabo, a green Muppet with furry purple features, cracks kids up with a traditional rapidfire comedy style called manzai.

The show's openness to other cultures is part of what makes it so valuable, said Michael Davis, author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street.

"They don't try to impose an American idea with American values and humor on top of somebody's culture," Davis said.

"Instead, they come in and take the basic idea—which is to create preschool television using research and to make it both entertaining and educational—and then they try to find out what's unique in the culture and develop a show on that basis."

Sesame Street Goes to War

Sesame Street's producers also make efforts to keep the show timely, Davis said. The Sesame Street that kids watch today isn't quite the one many adults remember.

"Just recently the show created DVDs for families where Mom or Dad has been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan and also ones for children whose parents came back handicapped from service in those areas," Davis said.

"That to me is groundbreaking media for young people."

Sesame Street Goes Green

As another example of the show's forward thinking, Davis said, the new Sesame Street season that begins next week will introduce children to the basic ideas of sustainable living.

"It's a curriculum about nature and caring for the world that is just right for today," he said.

(Related: the National Geographic Kids Green Scene blog.)

"This show continues to stay very current with ideas that are in the zeitgeist."

Sesame Street Revolution

Sesame Street was initially geared to poor preschoolers in the U.S., Davis said.

"At the time, it was becoming evident to educators and researchers that there was a huge gap in school readiness between the haves and the have-nots," he said.

But Sesame Street quickly became a success and was soon embraced by children and parents from all walks of life.

"It was learned in the 1970s that preschoolers could learn a lot and that they could retain a lot," Davis said.

"Sesame Street was part of that revolution."
 

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