Formats Unpacked: Sesame Street

How a format changed children's TV forever

Hi all,

I’ve just got off the plane from Austin where we presented a SXSW session on how to develop formats. It was an absolute hoot. We designed the session like a TV gameshow that included prizes, a wheel of fortune and some jeopardy cards to move the conversation in all directions. After all, if you’re gonna do a talk on the power of formats, there’s no better way to show your work than turning a traditional conference session into something that makes the audience feel like they’ve been to a show. The room was at capacity and the only disappointed people were those in the queue outside hoping to get in on a one-in-one-out basis.

What’s interesting is that I started this newsletter four years ago because I couldn’t find anyone else writing anything interesting about formats. So it was pleasing to hear formats getting mentioned everywhere at SXSW. B2B, advertising and corporate comms people were talking up committing to serialised content formats as a winning strategy in the new era.

Are you adding serialised content formats into your strategy? Have you seen any interesting content formats that have surprised or delighted you? Let us know in the comments. Or if you need help developing or making audio, video or editorial content formats, now is the time to remind you that we don’t just do strategy - we make these things too. Get in touch if you want our help.

OK. On to the unpacking. Today I’m unpacking an absolute classic!

What’s it called?

Sesame Street (TV show)

What’s the format?

Few would disagree that Sesame Street is one of the most important TV shows ever made. When it launched in 1969, the creators wanted to make a children's television show that would "master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them.” If people could remember the adverts, then maybe kids could remember something useful. Using a mix of live-action, sketch comedy, animation and puppetry, the show would teach pre-school children the alphabet, numbers, vocabulary, shapes, and basic reasoning skills. 

Sesame Street not only introduced the world to ‘edutainment’ on TV, but also set the standard for on-screen diversity, featuring characters from all racial backgrounds, genders and age groups. Sesame Street resembled the kind of streets their viewers lived in, featuring a diverse cast of regular, and not so regular, characters from the neighbourhood.

Whilst not everyone knows someone who lives in a bin, characters like Oscar the Grouch allowed parents to discuss difficult subjects such as homelessness with their children. But it wasn’t just the kids that loved it. Celebrity guests and parodies kept adults watching, as did the humour, incredibly loveable characters and brilliantly written scenes.  

Despite being well received, Sesame Street was not without its detractors. In May 1970, the state commission in Mississippi voted to not air Sesame Street because of its "highly integrated cast of children" which the commission members felt “Mississippi was not yet ready for." Thankfully, the rest of the world managed to see beyond such issues and the show is still running today. 

What’s the magic that makes it special?

The magic in this educational format is that they don’t just turn a school curriculum into a TV programme. They start with making engaging TV, and then apply it to educational topics. The starting point for the writers isn’t the curriculum; it’s the scene, the storylines and the characters. They know that it's a lot easier to write something funny and engaging first, then map it to the curriculum, instead of doing it the other way around.

Speaking on the excellent Let's Make This More Interesting podcast, Sesame Street writer Norman Styles talked about writing his favorite scene. It featured Elmo revealing his fear of clowns. That idea was the starting point. Viewers discovered Elmo’s fear when he bumped into a bunch of his friends dressed as clowns. The always-happy puppet fell to pieces. Instantly, this emotional shift feels relatable to kids, who often find themselves in scary situations that they don’t understand. The character and dramatic premise that will hook their audience are established - it’s only now that the writers look for ways to add educational elements to the scene.

The first element is a counting song, the idea being that if Elmo covers his eyes and counts to ten, he might become less afraid of his friends dressed as clowns. But that doesn’t work. Then his friends remove their clown outfits one item at a time revealing their true selves to Elmo. They show him that it's just a funny red thing that goes on the nose, a silly wig on the head and a bowtie that goes around the neck - nothing to be afraid of. It still doesn’t work.

But then another emotional moment resolves the scene - Elmo sees his friends are sad they can’t help him with his fear, and in going to comfort them, he realises he’s getting over his fear of their clown costumes. In classic Sesame Street style, the problem is solved through empathy and cooperation. This simple structure contains a lot of educational content - counting to ten, recognising body parts, and exploring the emotional nature of friendship - all wrapped in a compelling story featuring a much-loved character.

We have a saying at Storythings: "Don't make comms make culture." The pioneering ad-man Howard Gossage said it better: “nobody reads adverts; they read what is interesting, and occasionally, that's an advert.”

If you work in communications, you’ll know that your audience’s needs aren’t always aligned with your client’s goals. Like Elmo and his friends, good communication is about empathy and cooperation. Any communications project will stand a better chance of landing with your target audiences if they are indistinguishable from a piece of culture—something that immediately appeals to their interest, and only then reveals a deeper structure.

For Sesame Street, a simple change in process - start with the fun, then add the lessons - lead to incredible benefits for children all over the world, and continues to do this 55 years later. Clients naturally want to start the creative process with focusing on their goals, but - with a bit of arm-twisting, big ideas and buy-in - you can flip their mindset. It’s not easy, but if you get it right, the impact can be game-changing.

Favourite Episode

I don’t have a favourite episode but I do have several favourite sketches. The neighbourhood song is a classic, Counting Telephone Rings with Bert and The Count is wonderful. Fat, Cat, Sat, Hat is comedy gold.

Similar formats?

Whilst The Muppets were side by side with Sesame Street at the core of the Jim Henson universe, it featured fewer educational elements. Barney and Mr Rogers weren’t part of the same family, they were in closer to Sesame Street’s edutainment neighbourhood. More recently, the brilliant BBC series Horrible Histories used the same DNA of starting with the fun, and then applying the lessons. Matt told me his kids learnt more about British history from their excellent Monarchs Song than they did in classes.

Are you a freelance creative looking for a place to hang out with other creatives? Proper Fancy returns later this month - join us. Proper Fancy is a Storythings team show and tell that’s open to everyone. Join us and creatives from all over the world for an hour of talking about things that have tickled our fancy. It’s always a lot of fun and we love getting to meet new people.

See you all next time,Hugh

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