Today in History: Sesame Street Debuts

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Today in 1969, the iconic television show Sesame Street aired for the first time. The show, which helped multiple generations learn to read, write and count through its edutainment programming, is now one of the most recognizable children’s franchises in the world. Indeed, it is technically the single most viewed children’s TV show on the planet, airing in over 120 countries.

The show was originally thought up by Joan Ganz Cooney, a public access TV documentary producer. Cooney believed that television might help fill in gaps left in uneven education access for underprivileged children between the ages of three and five.

The show was set in a fictitious New York neighborhood. It featured an upbeat, socially progressive ethic and a diverse cast of characters.

Sesame Street was roughly modeled after a variety show called “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In” that was popular in the sixties. Sesame Street featured short, humorous puppetry segments, human actors and pieces of animation. The formula was a hit, but Sesame Street was accused by some critics of being a primary culprit in shortening kids’ attention spans.

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Joan Ganz Cooney hired Jim Henson to make the puppets that would become the Muppets. He created classic characters like Bert and Ernie, Oscar the Grouch, the Cookie Monster, Big Bird and Grover.

Sesame Street has always had a progressive bent to it, and the themes on the show can skew topical. The South African version of Sesame Street, called “Takalani Sesame,” introduced an HIV-positive Muppet named “Kami” in 2002. South Africa has the worst HIV crisis in the world.

More than 74 million Americans have watched Sesame Street. It is a media institution that serves as a touchstone as common in our shared vocabulary as Disney. It’s hard to imagine anyone making it through their childhood without seeing at least a few episodes of Sesame Street.

The show is still running. Its viewership is estimated at around eight million weekly viewers. It’s still going strong.

Sesame Street has historically attracted lots of celebrity cameos, and this is still the case. It seems like virtually everyone who’s well-known in public life for the right reasons has made an appearance. From famous athletes to celebrity actors, lots of faces have shown up to play with the Muppets.

Jim Henson unfortunately passed away, but lived to see his creations become a cultural phenomenon. His name is now synonymous with puppetry. The Muppets still enjoy a high level of popularity.

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