This is a special month for PBS Television. Fifty years ago Sesame Street, arguably the most successful show in the history of children’s television, made its debut. Since Nov. 10, 1969, nearly 4,500 episodes have introduced generations of kids and adults to Big Bird, Elmo, Cookie Monster, Rosita, Grover, and an entire cast of other characters old and new. Coincidentally, in 2020, PBS Guam will also be celebrating 50 wonderful years of broadcasting on Guam, which makes this shared milestone extraordinary for both our entities.
Just a few years before that first broadcast, philosopher and media theorist Marshall McLuhan coined his famous phrase about TV, “the medium is the message.” Sesame Street has proven just how prescient those words were. It has taught preschoolers how to read and count. It helped lead the way in bringing racial integration to television. And through the years it has created teachable moments for children and adults alike on subjects as difficult and diverse as death, divorce, autism, adoption, and HIV.
But while everyone agrees that Sesame Street is quality children’s programming, what do we really know of its impact on learning? A recent study presents some interesting data.
When Sesame Street first came on TV certain geographical areas of the U.S. could not receive the broadcast signals that carried the show. It worked out to about two-thirds of the country could see Sesame Street and one-third could not. Using available historical data it was concluded that children in places where Sesame Street aired were less likely to fall behind in school than children in areas where it was not available.
The benefits of access to Sesame Street were particularly large for children who lived in economically depressed areas. That level of result is said to be on par with the impact of attending Head Start; considering the comparative cost of producing and distributing television programming, that’s impressive.
KGTF PBS Guam is where Guam’s children and families watch and learn from Sesame Street. But it is just one way we are committed to connecting with children and youth, from preschool through high school.
In the next year, we hope to implement a school news program that will give our middle and high school students a safe place to broadcast their voices. This effort will go beyond broadcast to include the responsible utilization of social media sites such as Youtube and Twitter. At PBS Guam we see it as mission-critical to actively engage our young people, to empower them to become a positive influence on our island community now and when they become adults.
Much has changed since the first episode of Sesame Street, including the advent of the internet, which Marshall McLuhan also foresaw decades before it came into our lives. But one thing has not changed: the proven benefits of utilizing media and technology to educate children of all ages as pioneered by PBS this week in 1969.
It’s the gold standard first achieved by Sesame Street in the United States and 50 years later has spread to dozens of other countries around the world. It is also the standard that KGTF is setting for Guam.
Ina Carillo is the general manager of PBS Guam.