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Bert and Ernie may be 30, but they haven't aged a bit

'Sesame Street' takes a bow to 30 animated years

Web posted on:
Friday, November 13, 1998 12:19:36 PM EST

NEW YORK (CNN) -- It's been 30 years since Kermit the Frog and Big Bird first sang their way into the hearts of TV-viewing kids. Back then, "Sesame Street" could only be seen on PBS in the United States. It's now an institution in 140 countries.

But though it's seen by a lot more people now than then, its mission remains the same: It teaches kids about the alphabet, how to count, how to observe, and how to be a friend.

"I think the most important thing that we do is, we show children a wide variety of people living together in a neighborhood, all races, all cultures, all monsters, a little girl in a wheelchair," says Michael Loman, the show's executive producer.

Newer segments like "Elmo's World" are aimed at the show's younger audience

"And I think that shows children that different is not something to be frightened of, and that all kinds of different people live together and support each other," he says.

A show for all ages

Developed by Joan Ganz Cooney, the executive director of the then-fledgling Children's Television Workshop, the show's city-street set was first broadcast to the nation on November 10, 1969. Along with its human cast, Jim Henson created a full complement of puppets -- from Big Bird and Cookie Monster to the Count and the Grouch, roles every bit as juicy as those of their more mobile counterparts.

Although the urban setting was designed to capture the attention of inner-city kids, it proved popular among children of all backgrounds.

It also proved popular among children of all ages, even though it was originally designed for preschoolers. Oddly enough, its inter-age group success wound up creating one of the show's biggest challenges, because younger kids than anticipated are tuning in, and they have different needs.

Famous faces and celebrity spoofs help keep the show interesting for adults who watch, too

"It's a tightrope that you're walking, because a 2-year-old is very different from a 4-year old or a 5-year-old," Loman says.

But they manage to do it, introducing segments like "Elmo's World" for the little tots, and having Big Bird skits for the older ones.

Settling financial quandary

Like many public-television programs, "Sesame Street" has also faced the challenge of finding funding for its continued production.

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader criticized the show last month for ending a 30-year streak of commercial-free broadcasts; instead of being sponsored by the letter "M," the show will instead be sponsored by indoor playground manufacturer Discovery Zone beginning on November 16.

Nader, who has been a guest on the show, has urged parents to protest the Discovery Zone sponsorship, accusing "Sesame Street" of "exploiting impressionable children." Nonetheless, the show's violence-free, clean-language skits are likely to preserve the show's role as a parental safe zone for kids' unsupervised TV viewing.

Parents also love "Sesame Street" because it often seems to have been written for adults. It's not only the familiar faces (John Denver is just one of the show's many past guest stars), but the parodies and songs from Tony Bennett, Bruce Springsteen, and even Judy Garland.

Of course, this is the show's intention.

"It's a connection between the older generation (and) the newer generation that something existed in both their lives," says Sonia Manzano, who played mother and shopkeeper Maria for 26 years.

Reporter Jill Brooke contributed to this report.

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