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.
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.