Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Sesame Workshop Under Fire

I'm going to get very serious here, because I'm very angry, but let me begin by putting my cards on the table, face up, and smiling. I think Sesame Street is one of the very few finest TV series ever produced. I'd rank it alongside the work of Jonathan Meades or David Attenborough, Twin Peaks, The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show and Fawlty Towers. Quite simply, I can't imagine what kids TV would be like without it.

The new project from the show's makers is Sesame Beginnings, a series of videos aimed at children as young as six months. The show was produced in collaboration with Zero to Three, a nonprofit organisation concerned with children's development in their earliest years. If ever there was a show in which every detail - every tiny, tiny detail - had been scrutinised for its effect on the youngest viewers, this is it.

And still, some "experts" are taking shots at it.

It seems that some groups consider all TV viewing inappropriate for the under 2s, with no exception. These "experts" don't want to frame the discussion as though Sesame Beginnings is perhaps the best option available, they just want to throw stones at it.

One of these groups, Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood wear their true agenda in their name. They said "Sesame Beginnings will encourage babies' devotion to TV characters that have been licensed to promote hundreds of other products."

To which I say, "So?"

If licensing really was a problem, I'd suggest targetting the merchandise hawks. But it isn't a problem. If my kids wanted a toy, and wanted to play, I'd want them to have a toy that they can associate with learning, and development, and advancing. Same goes for their pyjamas, breakfast cereal and wallpaper - would it really be better if kids clothing came decorated not with characters they knew and loved but anonymous fuzzy wuzzy nothings? Or were just plain sheets of primary colour? How ridiculous.

If parents take responsibility, there isn't an issue. If they don't, then the issue is, simply, their lack of responsibility. Sesame Workshop are in no way implicated.

Rosemary Truglio is VP of Education and Research at Sesame Workshop. The AP have quoted her as saying "We didn't go into this in an impulsive way. We wanted to invite the parent into the viewing situation, to give the adult information about child development."

I have no doubt that their motives are virtuous, and that the shows will be immaculately conceived and executed. In a world where so few artisans and craftsmen show ambition, responsibility and fearlessness, Sesame Workshop stand virtually alone as image makers for deep-seeded social change.

Trying to protect very young children from TV is not only nearly impossible, it seems utterly wrong. I learned more from moving images than I ever did from, say, the radio. Should we ban radios around our toddlers too? Or is it just looking, and not listening, that's the issue?

We need TVs in the classroom, from kindergarten onwards. We need to teach kids to watch just like we teach them to read. The moving image has just as much value as literature, and it should be respected in just the same way.

As a footnote, let me remind you of an absurd story I reported last week that has some very sad echoes here.


Mark said...

It strikes me that there's a lot worse out there trying to brainwash our kids than the Hensons, who seem a bunch of well-meaning hippies.

Brendon said...

Sesame Workshop collaborate on projects with the Hensons, but they aren't the same entity.

I think Lisa Henson is on the side of good, for sure, but her brother... I'm not so sure about.

Jim Henson was a great man, however, and the circumstance of his death makes me very, very angry whenever I think about it.