Friday, January 16, 2009

The effects of Sesame Street research

As I said in the last post, Sesame Street is the most researched show in history. They tested children's attention and, importantly, what they learned every step of the way.

But anyone who has done research knows that research, especially with children, can be as much about the researcher than the children. Sometimes more so. You can go in looking for a particular result and then just prove yourself right. Or, conversely, you can go in looking to find something you obviously never will and then throw the whole test out, ignoring what you actually could have found.

There's an interesting book on Sesame Street called 'G Is For Growing'. It's written like a school essay and, as such, is a bit of a chore. And it is entirely biased - it seems to exist to tell you how great Sesame Street is (when they got great results, they say 'wow, we were fantastic' and when they get results that seem pretty poor and don't have enough impact to be anything above random chance they say 'wow, we were fantastic'). But it is interesting.

One thing that really struck me while reading it are the differences in the research over the years. In the very first year, nobody had seen the show. The producers and researchers had a blank slate and so were like explorers, ready to take on anything they found. It seemed like exciting times.

As the book goes on, things seem to change.

Research was changed for economic reasons (doing individual interviews took too long) and then they did a study to prove that wouldn't impact on their data. They wanted to put segments in and tested to prove they would work - the Elmo's World segment, for example, seemed particularly flawed when laid out in the book. They found in their earlier research that the show was bringing in a younger audience than expected, so they shifted focus and created this Elmo's World segment to appeal to the younger audience.

Good idea?

Well, perhaps... but the research had already indicated that they were hooking in the younger audience at particular times in their show. Why then change what's working? Seems to me they had an audience that was taking in information beyond their years and being attentive and so they aimed lower - aimed under their audience. Counter-productive.

But the important part, and it could have been just the choice of words in the book, is that they did research to support the segment. Unlike the early years, where they went in with a blank slate, willing to take or leave anything, they were now doing research simply to prove they were right. And, of course, they could.

Another flawed decision in my mind was the reformat of the show. Sesame Street was actually inspired by ads and game shows. They saw how children were glued to the quick pacing, and picked up the clear brainwashing consumer messages of advertising. So they thought - well, can we actually use this to help children learn? And they did.

But, years later, their research told them that children were also watching longer format shows. Mostly, it seems to me, because more were now available. But their thinking was (and, again, this could come from poor wording in the book) - children now tolerate longer shows, therefore we should give them longer segments. And, yeah, children can tolerate long shows. I think children have far greater attention spans than most people give them credit for as long as what they're paying attention to isn't boring bland shite. But did this negate their original observations and thinking? I don't think so.

Very recently, they tried to drop the Elmo's World segment and lost it for four episodes as a test (this wasn't in the book - it was just last year). Apparently it didn't test well because they had children asking, "where's Elmo's World?"

Well of course they asked that. They watch the bloody show every day. If I smacked a kid in the face once a day for 200 days and then didn't on the 201st, he'd ask "where's my smack in the face?" That doesn't mean the smack in the face was a good thing.

But then I think a huge amount of what happened to Sesame Street is a result of our painfully bland mind-numbing PC society. I mean, look what happened to Bert. He looks like he's had a lobotomy. Where's the bloody edge? He was a brilliant character. And it's the differences in the characters that made them all so appealing - does anyone think children honestly want to see a whole bunch of characters who are all smiley and nice to each other all the time?

And, if they did, would it be a good thing?

Or would life then kick them in the crotch when they got older?

At least Oscar still has some of his former self intact. Some.

If you need any proof that Sesame Street has lost its way, you only have to visit their official site here. On the bottom left of the page, you may be lucky enough to catch a sponsor's logo. You may have to refresh but, if you're lucky, you'll spot the mighty Golden Arches. Yes, Sesame Street is proudly brought to you today by a big fucking scary clown and his junk food. And they were worried about balancing out Cookie Monster and his binge eating (and subsequent purging)? McDonalds. Advertising on Sesame Street. That says it all.

Still, as shows for children go, I have to say I'd still take Sesame Street over almost anything else. It is still, with all it's recent blandness and screaming Elmo domination, a show that educates children. Have you seen those spot-motion Bert and Ernie segments? I like 'em.

To end, I'll just point out that my daughter watched the Old School Sesame Street sets and loves Bert. No, doesn't just love him - she's in love with him. This is old Bert. Not post-lobotomy Bert.


Red Pill Junkie said...

Yeah, what's up with Cookie Monster now advocating for including fruits and vegetables in your diet?? it misses the whole God damned point of the character!

Do you think Bitter, that Sesame Street suffered from the same problems being discussed over @ Cartoon Brew about Frank Zappa and the old Music execs (and the Pythons with the Beeb too)—i.e. that once they were successful the censors and executive producers began sticking their nose and messing everything up?

PS: Oh! and the reason your daughter may have such a crush for grumpy vintage Bert... well, she does love YOU, doesn't she? ;-)

Mr. Trombley said...

Dear Sir,

A Cookie Is A Sometimes Food, sung to Cookie Monster by the owl who sings Put Down The Ducky (Hoots), is a parody of A Woman Is A Sometimes Thing written by the Gershwin Brothers for their opera Porgy And Bess.

It's interesting, music is one of the things that distinguishes good children's programming (in my memory, anyway).

Another great one was The Electric Company, which regularly had songs from the great Tom Lehrer (a mathematician and master of black comedy in song form):

One more from Tom Lehrer:

We now know that Lobachevsky couldn't have plagiarized Janos Bolyai's work, but it's still a funny song. Also, that ridiculously long paper title is a real subject in mathematics, but I don't know how to explain it. If you already know what it is, wikipedia has an article about it:

Why are wikipedia's math articles written so impenetrably?

I wonder how close Bert was to Frank Oz's personality. He is almost the same charachter (a bit more sneering) as the prison guard in The Blues Brothers.

I think there's a romantic idea that artists should climb the mountain naked and alone; anyone who "interferes" with this evil.

But there have been many executives that fostered the creative process to a great extent.

Irving Thalberg, for instance, had much keener comedic senses than Sam Wood. It was his "interference" that made A Night At The Opera the second greatest Marx Brothers movie. Just compare it to the movies they did after Thalberg wasn't there to defend them and to see how important he was.

It takes as much talent to be an executive as it takes to be an artist, and if you look at the average artist you can see why the average executive is what they are.

Bitter Animator said...

I'm a huuuuuge Lehrer fan, Mr.T! Thanks for those links. And I am also a fan of The Electric Company. It was alost as much a part of my childhood as Sesame Street.

RPJ, I think there are a huge number of factors going on with Sesame Street. It's important to bear in mind the pressure they are under. SS got huge really fast and came out claiming they were good for children. That presented a challenge - prove they are wrong. Everyone was looking to take a shot at Sesame Street.

Criticism was rampant that the pace of the show was too fast for children to actually learn. Cookie Monster's lack of proper grammar was an initial target. And some studies set out to show that the only thing Sesame Street taught children was the desire to watch more television.

And with later hot issues, like childhood obesity leading to the 'Cookie is a sometimes food' message, Sesame Street has just been under a serious amount of pressure.

There have also been many changes in key personell. And, of course, that brings with it different ways of thinking. They also found much more competition for ratings as they got on, especially from that godawful Barney.

So it's hard to say that they have been censoring the show, though I would say that's often what it has amounted to. I think they have just been reacting to pressure and simply don't have that free spirit and open-mindedness that they once had. And I guess, after so many years, how could they?

Certainly the playing field in television has changed massively over the years. And, right now, we do live in a very PC society and a litigious one, where people look for scapegoats - Cookie Monster made my kid fat, and so on.

Now, I don't think that should be dismissed either. People talk about 'personal responsibility' simply to detach themselves from their own responsibilities. That just plays into the hands of corporations and people looking to make a quick buck.

We are responsible for what we make, especially when it comes to children's television. Children are forming their world view. I would argue that everything, absolutely everything, a child is exposed to should be considered educational. Because they're soaking in information, views, opinions like sponges, especially in the early years.

If people don't take that responsibility seriously, or try to pass off the responsibility, I would say they shouldn't ever be in children's television.

So I find it hard to come down too hard on Sesame Street. I still think their heart is totally in the right place and I still think, given what is out there in children's television, they are one of the best.

Except for the McDonalds ads.

Anonymous said...

The cynical side of me can't help but think that the big execs were slowly poisoning Jim for many years before he actually died just so they could then make their disastrous changes to characters and formats. The Open Sesame show and Elmo's World probably do work great for some kids, but the best thing about Sesame Street (we picked up vol. 1 of Old School Sesame Street just the other day, I can't wait to go back and watch it done RIGHT) was that it was for EVERYBODY.

Segments I don't recall seeing for some time: Sesame Street News with Kermit - brilliant observations regarding fairy tales & nursery rhymes; the piano guy trying to "write" nursery rhymes and constantly fucking them up resulting in bashing his head on the piano; the sleazy guy trying to sell letters to that same moustached guy all the time only to result in getting arrested all the time; Grover as a waiter fucking up the guys order over and over - all comically great bits, very quick but still as educational/informative as most other "educational" television shows.

The Muppets Tonight is probably a great example of how fucking useless Brian Henson is in keeping the vision going, and unfortunately it's right across the board.

Bitter Animator said...

Yeah, those Old School sets are pure gold. Though I think it's a crime that they have made only 10 episodes available from that 10-year period when they actually have 1300 sitting in their archives. Okay, so I don't expect them to release all 1300, but a heftier set would be great.

And you're right - they were great for everyone.

Anonymous said...

I think a 1300 episode DVD set WITH commentary would be a big seller, as far as I can tell PBS always needs funding - they can make their money that way.

I can almost hear the commentary now - Frank Oz "Jim would just come in with these messed up drawings, I don't think they were even meant to be new Muppets... man, we were so fucking HIGH."

susan said...

I cried the night Jim Henson died, thinking if and when I had children, they wouldn't know the original Sesame Street, and the Muppet Show.

I was watching Sesame Street for the first time a few weeks ago since I was a kid with my 2 year old Nephew. It's not the same, is it?

Electric Company! I haven't thought of that in years. Did Grammar Rock and "I'm just a bill" make it across the pond? And the one who taught numbers?

Is it true that people in Europe dislike the Americans because Sesame Street taught the kids to say "Zee' not "Zed"?

Bitter Animator said...

Well I'm not sure if you could say that people in Europe dislike Americans because of the letter Zee! But certainly there are differences in how English is used in the UK and in America and that would be a concern, even now as so much of our children's shows are imported from the US. Sesame Street did air over here but it is not airing now and hasn't for quite some time.

I'm not sure The Electric Company or the others ever aired in the UK. I actually spent much of my childhood elsewhere, where I did have access to those shows. And loved them. ALthough I have only the vaguest recollection of Schoolhouse Rock.

Yes, it was incerdibly sad when Jim Henson died. The man was a legend and always will be. Sesame Street or the Muppets just haven't been the same without him. There were, and are, so many great performers and it was never about just one man but his influence and his personality comes through so strongly and the difference without him is all too noticable.

Unknown said...

So in some of your earlier posts, you criticized the attitude of "Well, I like it, so kids should like it," or "just make it entertaining, so don't worry about what the kids learn from it."

But then that can go off the rails, too. Someone thinks, "It's not for me, it's for kids, so it's okay if I hate it." Or "are kids learning bad behaviour from Cookie Monster?"

I'm especially not sure how to approach the first matter, that I'm an adult, so I'm not the audience. But in most creative endeavours, you ultimately do have to make what interests you, otherwise your cynicism will show through.

Bitter Animator said...

Yeah, in spite of what I said, I'd agree with you on that, Ryan. There's a very tricky balance there.

The thing is, you can also run yourself around in circles trying to second guess children and just what it is about something they like or don't like. Whereas there is one child you can totally understand and listen to - the child you once were.

But then many people aren't talking to the child they once were, they're talking to the adults there are now. I have met a couple of creators in my time who were truly in touch with their own child and it was they who could get the most amazing reactions from children.

Unknown said...

Some of the old complaints about Sesame Street sound similar to complaints about Yo Gabba Gabba. Do you have any thoughts on that show?

Bitter Animator said...

While I've seen a few episodes of Yo Gabba Gabba, I haven't seen enough to be fair to it, especially where criticism is concerned. I love the style and the sense of fun with the show, though a couple of the characters are a bit creepy looking (balancing monsters with the possible scary effects on children was important in Sesame Street as preschoolers are very prone to night terrors). I especially like that it sets out to educate in totally entertaining ways and love that some of the musical guests appeal to adults (well, appealed to me in the ones I saw).

If I had a concern just from what I saw, it would be that it may be slightly whacked out crazy. That can be really fun and most children will love that but children are very sensitive creatures and can be deeply affected by things that wouldn't phase an adult or older child.

But I'd throw that same criticism out at In The Night Garden too, which is a show I have issues with - it's aimed at children too young for television and is just that bit too psycho for developing minds in my opinion.

Sesame Street had some segments back in the day that scared children but they were often then dropped and, even then, were isolated parts of a far greater show.

What's weird about very young children is that something can affect them quite deeply and yet they'll still want to watch it. Like they don't know that it's what's keeping them up at nights.

But I haven't seen enough of Yo Gabba Gabba to really know if that's a genuine concern or if other criticisms are justified. My initial impressions have been mostly positive though.