After Sesame Street: What's Next for Children's TV?

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Sesame Workshop

Fifty years ago, a revolutionary approach to children's television was born when Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street, dared to think that television could be used for educational purposes, and that by doing so, she could move the needle for all children. For the first time, educational researchers, writers and producers gathered together to develop the series—which mixed fantasy and reality along with a racially diverse cast and an endearing array of puppets. From its first episode in November 1969, Sesame Street—and its iconic theme song—became an instant sensation.

Around the same time, another visionary producer was asking different questions about the power of television to change children's lives. Instead of slapstick comedy, a gentle, cardigan-wearing Presbyterian minister named Fred Rogers asked whether television could respect kids and give them a space to express their feelings. Could someone speak directly to kids through the screen, to guide them through the everyday joys and sorrows of childhood? Armed with that vision, Rogers elevated children's media to a whole new level with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.

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The cardigan-clad Mr. Rogers and King Friday, the ruler of his Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Deborah Feingold/Corbis/Getty

As a child, I was inspired by these ground-breaking shows. I felt seen through the screen with Mister Rogers' Neighborhood; as an adult, it was my dream to create an educational hit show that kids wanted to play along with. But by the time I started my career in children's media almost 25 years ago, it seemed like the newest shows on television had taken a step backward from the idealism of Cooney and Rogers. Instead, the majority of the offerings were what I call "cereal box" programming: commercially successful, but without much "nutrition" or educational value. It was the motivation I needed. With the creation of Blue's Clues in 1996, my co-creators and I built on the foundations of the pioneers of children's media and attempted to push it further. Coming from a child development background, I knew that kids were active viewers of media. Could we use the "passive" medium of television to enable kids to interact, learn, play-along, feel empowered and heard?

After much research and development, I can safely say, yes. Hinging on the idea that kids will interact with any media if given time and space to think, Blue's Clues was born. During its 10-year run, millions of kids learned by talking to Steve, our host, and practiced skills by playing educational games with Blue. The result was that children viewers scored better on standardized tests than those who didn't watch the show. Through its new, "four-beat" pause, Blue's Clues literally gave children time to take a breath. They absorbed the information offered and formulated their own answers. It added interactivity to the educational elements, as well as offering more repetition and longer narrative segments, which were found to provide even more "stickiness" for the educational content.

Today, we have more ways to create media than ever before and masses of additional research and experience in creating quality media that kids want to watch. Consumers have an overwhelming amount of readily available content and infinite delivery options. As demographics shift, it is even more important that we push beyond what Sesame Street started years ago (and continues to do today) when they used a diverse cast and reflected underprivileged children on screen. We must ensure that all children see themselves represented on the screen in media.

So, what is the future of media? The future is both positive and cautionary.

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Blues Clues & You! brings back favorite characters like Blue, Joe, Magenta, Mailbox and others. Courtesy of Nickelodeon

As we have seen, apps have changed the way preschoolers play, leaning into the intuitive nature of the touch screen. In the future, through story-based content, we will see kids take even greater control, truly propelling the story forward—playing with characters in real time on a smartphone or an iPad and visually immersing themselves in these worlds through virtual reality. Experiments in this technological age will create opportunities to use these new tools to elevate the medium toward a bigger purpose. We've already seen some advancements in this area with choose-your-own adventure interactive content such as Blue's Clues & You! on Noggin's Play Along; with Netflix's interactive episodes of Puss in Book, with Minecraft and Bear Grylls' You vs Wild; and with others in the works. It will be interesting to see how Apple leans into the interactive media space with its new educational content for kids as well. The future will be based on experiments and questions we ask to innovate and to elevate the content further. Can the technology be used to add more layers to a story, to entertain and educate on an individualized level? Can virtual reality help kids step into others' shoes and become more empathetic?

On a more cautionary note, we know media can and should do more than entertain. Content should inspire action—or what I call "view and do"—where kids watch, get inspired, learn and go out and create change. We can't rely on the technology; we need to keep experimenting and asking questions. Why this show? Why now? Why this piece of technology? What does it do for the content itself? Does it elevate? Does it empower kids? Does it help kids see themselves on screen? Are we making use of these new technologies to make even more powerful and profound content that truly moves the needle for children in the real world?

The truth is, no matter how many advances we make in technology, kids are still kids. Emotionally, children haven't changed in the last five decades, nor will they in the next. They still want to bond and interact with characters they love, they want stories that empower them to understand the world around them, they want to help and be challenged to learn new skills and they still want to laugh. They crave respect and autonomy, while seeking guidance from trusted adults. And they still look to media for ideas about how to engage with their peers and environment. Sometimes, the biggest advances in media are the "small" ones—such as creating interactivity with just a pause or empowering kids by looking through the camera lens, like Rogers did.

Tomorrow we may have different tools to create media, but the bottom line will remain the same as when Cooney first began her project: One vision, one creative idea or one question can be a powerful way to change children's lives for the better. And the future of children's media will always start with creators who know kids, have a passion, have something to say and want to experiment to elevate the media to meet the needs of kids.

Angela C. Santomero is the Emmy Award-winning co-creator of Blue's Clues and Blues Clues & You! and the creator of Super Why!, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, Creative Galaxy, Wishenproof and Charlie's Colorforms City. She is the author of Preschool Clues and Radical Kindness and is the Chief Creative Officer of 9 Story Media Group. The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

After Sesame Street: What's Next for Children's TV?