Television is a two-edged sword. It has been both a contributor to and a detractor of the quality of life in America. On the one hand, television made us more closely connected as a nation and to our world, but on the other, it has also pulled us inside, so that our sense of community is more distant. We don’t know our neighbors as we used to, we don’t just sit and around and talk like before, because of the neverending temptation to withdraw into the world of television.
Television ushered in a sedentary lifestyle that’s had an adverse affect on our mental and physical health. It began with innocent programs such as Howdy Doody and Bozo and Captain Kangaroo for the kids and developed into a lucrative business of selling sugar-enriched cereals and junk-ladden snacks — all through a medium providing passive entertainment.
And yet, some good has come out of television, and one of the best just turned 40. At its debut on Nov. 10, 1969, Sesame Street was a different kind of children’s program, with a purpose and a meaning that helped to educate a generation.
The public television children’s program was based on a simple idea: If you can hold kids’ attention, you can teach them. And it did, with great skill, creating characters that are internationally recognized to this day and storylines that captivate grownups as well as children. And with the lack of commercials — except for the letter and number sponsors (“Sesame Street is brought to you by the letter ‘C’ and the number ‘7’”) — the show kept its focus pure. The impact was far-reaching. Even the Optic subscribes to a service that produces pages designed to entertain and educate children (our Las Vegas Kids is distributed to area elementary schools each month). That’s a consequence of Sesame Street’s approach to learning.
But maybe there’s another influence that hasn’t been fully recognized. Sesame Street was a fully integrated community; no one was stereotyped, and it seemed perfectly normal. This grew out of a time in which America were generally segregated, races were typecast and nothing seemed “normal.” In a sense, Sesame Street paved the way for Barack Obama by helping to raise a generation that saw nothing wrong with being multiracial.
Sesame Street’s influence on modern America has been tremendous. And we’re better off for it.