Monday, October 8, 2012

Big Bird's not the only loser here...

I have an issue I want to talk about.  It's actually the reason I wanted to start a blog.  It's about the change that has happened with something very dear to me.  I couldn't fit my rant into the tiny status update that Facebook allows and I really wanted to share this with as many people who would read it, so blogging seemed a good jumping off point.

There's been a lot of talk lately about Mitt Romney trying to kill and filet Big Bird, and what a mean jerk he is.  (I mean REALLY).  If the quotes you read on Facebook can be trusted, then this one I read really makes Romney look like a piece of garbage:

"Cutting PBS support (0.012% of budget) to help balance the federal budget is like deleting text files to make room on your 500Gig hard drive."

~Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist 

0.012% of the budget?!  Dude, focus on cutting war funding.  That should save a couple bucks. 

However, I feel that in addition to Big Bird being bullied by the GOP, what we need to actually be worried about is the demise of ELMO.  And it's not the republicans we need to blame this time, it's our friends at Sesame Workshop--the creators of Sesame Street, who have decided to oppress your favorite giggling red monster and all he stands for.  

Now, I am not a huge fan of mainstream television for children.  Most of it is like crack for little kids' minds.  I find it frenetic, unhealthy, brain-draining, sexist, often violent.  I don't let my kids watch it.  I do let my kids watch Sesame Street though.  

Let me also say that I LOVE Sesame Street.  (Probably more than any adult should).  And Megan LOVE LOVES Sesame Street.  And Finn, well he could care less about Sesame Street, but I have a feeling that since it's on every morning he's going to come around.  Like many people I grew up watching Sesame Street.  I remember a boy in my kindergarten class named David knew how to spell "motorcycle" because of Sesame Street.  I love the muppets, the often hilarious skits filled with double entendres, the simple messages of sharing and friendship, the faces of diversity.  I love that Megan has actually learned a ton from a TV show and she is always entertained while counting and singing the alphabet.  

Before I had kids I didn't really like Elmo; all I saw was the annoying Tickle Me Elmo dolls and commercialized junk.  But now I love him!  He's cute and sweet and all he wants to do is love you.  Cookie Monster loves cookies, Oscar's a grouch, Bert is always irritated, Abby's magic, and Elmo just loves you.  Megan eats it up, and even Finn says "Elmo" whenever he sees a muppet.  Also, I saw the documentary Being Elmo and fell in love with his creator Kevin Clash as well.    

For 13 years Elmo has had his own eleven minute segment at the end of every Sesame Street episode, called Elmo's World.  It is Megan's very favorite thing in the entire world.  Each segment has a simple theme, like "ears", or "the weather", or "animals".  There are songs and educational videos about the themes.  Megan's favorite part of the segment by far is Mr. Noodle, a clownish guy who tries to figure out silly things like how to use an umbrella or how to get dressed.  It's wonderful.  

Since we have watched Sesame Street every single day for the last year I have seen every episode a million times and Elmo's World in particular about three million times.  I was so excited when the new season was going to start a few weeks ago.  Not only would there be new main stories with their celebrity guests and funny morals, but there would be new Elmo's Worlds.  (I was maybe a little too excited.)

When the first episode of the new season came on, you can imagine my surprise when, instead of hearing the familiar opening notes of Elmo's World there was something called Elmo the Musical.  It  Megan looked at me with confusion and then started to cry.  She sobbed for a good twenty minutes solid.  After frantically googling for what the F was going on, I had to explain to her that there wasn't going to be any more Elmo's World and that this....this...horrible, horrible abomination was here to stay.  

What I found out in my research is that Sesame Street has used something called the STEM system of education.  This stands for Science-Technology-Engineering-Math.  I don't know a thing about educational techniques, but that seemed like a pretty good deal.  This year, with the advent of Elmo the Musical, they are starting something called STEAM, Science-Technology-Engineering-Arts-Math.  That's the justification for phasing out Elmo's World and starting Elmo's Musical, because musicals are artsy.  

The problem with Elmo the Musical though is that, sure it's artsy-ish (simply because they're calling it a musical), but it has absolutely NO educational value.  Elmo's World explained things, it had real-world videos of real kids doing the things that were explained, it had kids "teaching" Mr. Noodle how to do things, it had counting, it had letters, it had songs.  AND it was artsy.  Elmo the Musical is mostly a non-sensical cartoon with Elmo blue-screened in. It is supposed to bring the arts into Sesame Street because it's a musical, but it added no artistic value, while actually depleting educational value because it replaced something that did educate.

Now, the good news is that we have multiple platforms with which to watch Sesame Street.  We have it live and set to our DVR (the new Sesame Street), we have it On-Demand through our cable (old Sesame Streets), and we have it streaming through Netflix.  Megan requests "old Sesame Street" every morning and I'm happy to oblige.  

The major problem that I'm having, aside from my child being disappointed, is that Sesame Street, something that is supposed to be the sacred cow of educational children's television programming, has sunk to a new and dangerous low.  The old Sesame Street format is drastically different (and better) to the new one.  The reruns that we watch are mostly from 2008, just four years ago and the format is like this:

-the main story
-2 vignettes (adorable little animations or real life videos that have to do with counting, the alphabet, sharing etc, or they can be Ernie singing about his rubber ducky.  Something sweet and educational)
-the letter of the day
-1 vignette
-Grover's travels around the world (these are the BEST.  He hosts this little video documentary about how other kids around the world do things.  The other day we learned how kids in South Africa make metal wire cars.  So cute)
-6 vignettes
-Elmo's World

Compare that with today's format:

- Murray's "Word on the Street" word of the day
- the main story
-2 vignettes
-the letter of the day
-Abby's Flying Fairy School (an animated Abby Caddaby segment which I kind of like)
-1 vignette
-Bert and Ernie's Great Adventures (a claymation segment in which Bert and Ernie go somewhere and learn something.  Not my favorite, especially since Sesame Street seems to be moving away from using actual muppets)
-2 vignettes
-Elmo the Musical

There is a trend toward more "episodes within the episode", (like Abby's Flying Fairy School), but I really like the vignettes because that's where the learning happens.  I swear Megan learned to sing the alphabet from watching these.  Plus, there were real children, children who were mostly not white.  That diversity is rare for television and now it is practically non-existent on the new format.  The more segments of these "episodes within the episode" like Bert and Ernie's Great Adventures or Super Grover 2.0 they have, the fewer opportunities they have to show actual children of color on TV.  And this new format of Sesame Street is mostly filled with those segments.  

Now, I hear you saying that all of this is so minor in the grand scheme of things.  It's just a TV show, and you don't need to let your kids watch.  In fact, it's just a segment inside of a TV show, and there are puh-lenty of other real things to worry about in this world.  Well, that is true, but I have to say that this is a legitimate problem, (and not just because my kid's unhappy).  The trend is disturbing.  40 years ago, when Sesame Street began and Jim Hensen was in charge and life was good, it was a pure, sweet and simple educational television program.  Change happens, I get it, and shows need to grow and adapt to those changes.  But even in the last four years Sesame Street has moved drastically away from simple education to became the "crack for kids" format.  It's faster and flashier and more colorful.  Sesame Street has drastically decreased its didactic, quality content in lieu of a ratings boosting (I can only assume) candy-like subject matter.  And Sesame Street was one of the LAST shows that you could count on for good TV for kids.


Dramatic, I know.  But throughout its 40 plus year run, Sesame Street has moved in one direction, especially in the last few years, and there is nothing to think that it will make an about face.  I just think that there's already too many kids shows that are fast and hyper and only a teensy bit, if at all, educational.  I think that Nickelodeon and Disney channel should be able to air any old stupid cartoon that they want, and we will choose not to watch them.  But SESAME STREET???  PBS????  My last refuge?  What a terrible, terrible loss.  And I think this problem of losing our sacred Sesame Street is emblematic of the irreversible damage to what our society provides for children in general.

It turns out we don't need politicians like Mitt Romney to eviscerate Sesame Street and take away quality programming on PBS when it is doing the job just fine on its own.  

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