In the 1960s, children’s television on the commercial networks was sponsor-oriented, directed at white middle-class children and the parents who were likely to buy what was advertised. Even the higher quality shows had settings and characters that would be familiar to those children. There was very little educational content. But this was an era of extreme political division and growing concern about income and opportunity disparity. Children from the inner city were starting school behind suburban children when it came to reading and counting, and they fell further behind as the school year went on. The same concerns that led to the creation of Project Headstart inspired Carnegie Foundation Vice President Lloyd Morrisett, a psychologist who specialized in how and what children learn, and television executive Joan Ganz Cooney to develop the idea of a television program that would help teach basics like the alphabet and numbers. But it would have to capture their attention, and that meant it had to be fun, funny, heartwarming, and engaging.
That is where two other key partners come into the picture. The better known is Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets. “He looks like a hippie,” Cooney thought to herself when she first saw him. Just as important was Jon Stone, who helped define the show as writer and director. They found that children learned better if their parents watched with them, so they had to appeal to adults as well. Hence Smokey Robinson and a list of celebrity guests that included First Ladies, Grammy winners, and star athletes.
This film is not about the many controversies “Sesame Street” has weathered over the years, including claims that it made it more difficult for children to learn in the less entertaining environment of a schoolroom or the move to premium cable channel HBO. Writer Christopher Cerf does make a wry comment about the “Letter B” song that sparked a $5 million lawsuit from Northern Songs, which had the rights to the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” (It was later settled for $50.) And the now-adult children of some of the people who created the show acknowledge that what happened behind the scenes could be stressful for them and their families.