While many South Africans know about the beloved children’s television show, Takalani Sesame, not many will know that it stemmed from an American educational programme by the name of Sesame Street.
Sesame Street aired for the first time on this day in 1969, and would go on to change the way not only American children, but children around the world, learnt the alphabet for decades to come. It’s theme song is immediately recognisable by the catchy tune that goes along with its title lyrics “Can you tell me how to get/ How to get to Sesame Street?”.
The show, which has been aired in more than 120 countries since its release, focused on teaching children the alphabet and how to count. Sesame Street was the brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney, a former documentary producer for public television. Cooney’s goal was to create programming for preschoolers that was both entertaining and educational.
It was set in a fictional New York neighbourhood and included ethnically diverse characters and positive social messages. Sesame Street was built around short, often funny segments featuring puppets, animation and live actors.
The format was hugely successful; however, over the years some critics have blamed the show and its use of brief segments for shrinking children’s attention spans. Since the show’s inception, one of its most-loved aspects has been a family of puppets known as The Muppets.
Cooney hired puppeteer Jim Henson (1936–1990) to create a cast of characters that became Sesame Street institutions, including Bert and Ernie, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Grover and Big Bird. The Muppets would go on to become their own extremely popular franchise, only debuting in 1976, when Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy were introduced.
After 31 years of production in America, the decision was undertaken to begin a South African version of the show, Takalani Sesame, in 2000. In 2002, Takalani Sesame introduced a 5-year-old Muppet character named Kami who is HIV-positive, in order to help children living with the stigma of a disease that has reached epidemic proportions.
In 2006, a new Muppet, Abby Cadabby, made her debut on Sesame Street and was positioned as the show’s first female star character, in an effort to encourage diversity and provide a strong role model for girls. Since its first airing, over 74 million Americans have watched Sesame Street. Today, an estimated 8 million people tune in to the show each week in the US alone.
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