How did we get to Sesame Street? Via LBJ’s Great Society.

As part of our project on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, we will take a look this week at some lesser-known but important things that came out of the myriad programs that were created and legislation that passed. We now take many of them for granted. Each day this week we'll highlight one.

Sesame Street


Joe Namath, quarterback for the New York Jets, chats with Big Bird during taping of the children's television show "Sesame Street" in a New York studio on Sept. 25, 1972. (AP Photo/Harry Harris)

This post has been brought to you by the letters G-R-E-A-T S-O-C-I-E-T-Y. 

In 1967, Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, which created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. It provides operational support to public media around the country. PBS wanted to create a children's television show, and an idea was pitched by Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett. That show was Sesame Street, and it came to TV screens across the country in 1969. Here's a clip from the first episode:

"When you think about the Great Society and this dream for a better country, Sesame Street fits so neatly into that because it was created for children who weren't getting read to at night, who didn’t have little record players at home and weren't listening to music. It was created for those children who didn’t have the preparation at home that other children in other circumstances were getting," said Michael Davis, the author of "Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street."


Astronaut Sally Ride, who was a member of the Space Shuttle 7 crew in June 1983, poses with "Sesame Street" character Grundgetta on the set of the children's television show in New York City on  Jan. 7, 1984. Ride appears in a segment for the program in which she teaches children about the letter 'A,' as in astronaut. (AP Photot/Dave Pickoff)

Sesame Street wasn't conceived merely as entertainment, Davis said. Rather, it was looked at as an opportunity to bring together people who worked in fields including social science, children's literature, psychology, art and other places to build a learning curriculum disguised as a television show.

The founders, Davis said, didn't think the show would last for more than a few years.

"No one to that point had really tested whether the power of that communications tool could be used for a greater good," he said.


Grover and Elmo, right, from Sesame Street visit the Olympic Park in Stratford in east London, on Aug 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)

But, as we all know, Sesame Street has endured and is now a childhood staple around the world.  Now in its 44th season, the show has exposed millions of children to lessons, songs, characters and notable people at the time and taught lessons about diversity, perseverance, honesty and so much more. It has also helped children learn how to cope with scary times, such as emergency situations, dealing with bullies and death.

And then of course there were the educational lessons: science, reading, history, math and, of course, counting.

If there is a character who embodies the show's roots in the Great Society, Davis said, it's Grover.

"I think the Great Society is Grover," Davis said. Nothing gets him down. Nothing. And he actually thinks he’s a super hero at times. So you know he’s got that spirit of determination. That’s what Grover’s about. He’s just a little determined skinny blue guy."

 

Katie Zezima covers the White House for Post Politics and The Fix.
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