F is for Facelift: Inside Sesame Street’s new look

“Sesame Street,” prepping for its 46th season this fall, is giving its iconic neighborhood a new look.

Digiday took a tour of the new set of the public television stalwart and found some big changes. Gone is Elmo’s building — he’s moved across the street to the brownstone at 123  — exposing a skyline that provides a new depth of field to the set. Abby Cadabby’s garden has been expanded to “Alice in Wonderland” proportions, complete with a compost bin where Oscar will make his visits. And Big Bird’s nest has, finally, been placed in a tree.

The new set — Mr. Hooper’s store still anchors the community — is part of a semi-regular “refresh” of the show, according to executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente.

“We evolve over time,” she told Digiday. “The refresh cycle has gotten shorter. It’s about five years ago that we did our last big change.”

There are few brands or media institutions that can boast the staying power and influence of “Sesame Street.” And it shows no signs of flagging: One of the most authoritative studies done on “Sesame Street” to date, released this month by Wellesley College economist Phillip Levine and University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney, found that kids who watched “Sesame Street” as toddlers went on to do better in elementary school.

Kids who watched the show were more likely to stay at the appropriate grade level for their age, an effect that was particularly pronounced among boys, African-Americans and children who grew up in disadvantaged areas. The formula ain’t broke. But that’s not stopping the Sesame Workshop from tinkering with it.

Aside from the new set, expect more pivots in season 46 — including several changes they’re not discussing publicly yet. “Our point of differentiation in the marketplace is that there’s this real place with real characters,” said Parente, drawing a distinction from the bulk of children’s programming, which is primarily animated.

“Over the years, we’ve thought about fighting animation. But in trying to compete over time, our neighborhood had become one that did not reflect reality. It was not organic, almost garish.” So the new set — and the forthcoming season — reflects in a way a return to the show’s roots, even as the ‘hood appears to have gentrified a bit. The cast of Muppets, which has mushroomed over the decades, will be pared down to focus on a core six: Elmo, Cookie Monster, Abby Cadabby, Grover, Big Bird and Oscar. The others will still be on the show, but the core cast will be the daily focus.

The tighter cast will help focus the child viewers’ attention, too, but don’t expect the pace of action — which has ramped up considerably since 1969 — to slow down. “The media landscape has evolved,” said Parente. “You have to adapt to what the viewing expectations are of your audience.”

Today, that landscape includes social media. The most popular Muppets have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, where parents are more likely to spend their time. Skits are created today with YouTube and Tumblr in mind, said Parente. “The magazine nature of the show gives us a variety of types of content to feed those platforms,” she said. “The key for successful content is to tailor it to the platform it’s on.”

And while educating kids remains central to the show’s purpose, the program — research-driven and not-for-profit from day one, free from commercial constraints — has a new mission statement: “Sesame Street” helps kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder. “From testing, we find parents think it really describes the brand and the show well,” said Parente. “It’s not just cognitively smarter, but it’s also emotionally smarter. It’s stronger physically, but it’s also more resilient.” Which, if anything, is a good way of describing the “Sesame Street” brand, too.


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