Then and Now

This post was originally published for the Learning from Hollywood forum held in Los Angeles in May 2011.

My hope for this forum is that it helps realize, in some concrete way, the vision of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center. At this moment in time — the birth of the digital era — it is important to have the industry find a way to seize the unprecedented opportunity to entertain, educate, and make a sustainable profit through new media platforms. This is the same set of circumstances that Sesame confronted 40 years ago during the television revolution of the late 1960s.

Plus ca change, plus c’est la même chose: The more things change, the more they stay the same. Let’s compare then and now.

The educational challenges our nation faces remain the same. In the 1960s, we had the hope of the Great Society programs, the hope that NASA could get us to the moon, and the hope that we could help make an educational change through Sesame Street.

Today, we face diminished government capacity, high debt, and failing reading levels, all against the backdrop of knowing that educational success leads to economic success, eventually impacting both individuals and our nation as a whole.

There is also a parallel opportunity for media today as there was in the late 1960s: then, 70% of preschool children were at home and most had access to television. Because of these statistics, the founders of Sesame Street set up an experiment to see if children could be educated through television (“It’s not whether children learn from television; it’s what they learn from television.” -Joan Ganz Cooney)

Unlike then, 70% of preschool children today are in some form of daycare or preschool; only a small percentage of daycare, however, produces a quality education which can ready our preschoolers for school. Digital technology remains paramount in their lives. We now have the opportunity to create engaging, educational, and entertaining media for children for the new array of digital platforms.

These similarities aside, the educational challenge today is perhaps even greater than it was in 1969. It takes a village to raise one child, and the whole country needs to pitch in to both help our students compete globally and to boost the nation’s economy through educational success. Teachers today are not given the accolades, let alone the credit, that they should be receiving, and parents are facing a changing role for themselves both at home and at school.

Media platforms today are expected to be personal and portable; our challenge is how to monetize programs on these devices and to choose which would be the most accessible and manipulable by young children.

Hollywood provides a spectacle of narrative and entertainment to all of these proceedings. Our task is to take that energy and vision and apply it to the education of our nation’s children.

From where will the next Sesame Street come? We need to welcome it into existence, and I personally hope that this forum unleashes the passion and fun that we need to help our youngest and neediest children thrive in this new world, which at its core, remains the same as it’s always been.

As Executive Vice President of Education, Research, and Outreach, Dr. Bernstein establishes the educational agenda for all Workshop productions and creative executions. He oversees the development and analysis of research studies, which assess the objectives of Sesame Workshop‘s projects. Lewis served as the Executive Producer of the nonprofit organization’s most beloved and well-known series, Sesame Street. In his three years as Executive Producer, the series adopted a curriculum encouraging American children to respect the diversity of children from all over the world and an initiative to teach children about nutrition and exercise. Formerly Vice President of Global Sesame Street Productions, Lewis has been integral to the success of the children’s series internationally, training production teams from France, Spain, Holland, Germany, Kuwait, and Israel to develop their own versions of the program.

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