In reporting that story, I spent a day at the Sesame Workshop headquarters in New York, across the street from Lincoln Center, talking to the show's executive producer and two of its educational researchers about how the show appeals to kids — and how it has changed in the seasons since it first came on the air in 1969.
This list of what I learned from them is brought to you by the number seven.
1. Storytelling is the show's secret. From its inception, Sesame Street has stuck to a super-successful principle: If you tell a story, and tuck information into it, kids will remember that information. “Storytelling is critical,” Jennifer Kotler Clarke, Sesame's vice president for research and evaluation, told me. “If you organize information in storytelling, children are more likely to learn it. And adults are, too.”
2. The storytelling is quicker-paced now than it was in decades past. The cuts are quicker. The action is more intense. None of the songs are ballads.
You can blame shortening attention spans for the touch-screen generation. "Anytime there's talking heads — two characters just talking, and no action happening — kids just tune out," said Carol-Lynn Parente, the show's senior VP and executive producer. "The old Bert and Ernie pieces, they're just talking. They wouldn't survive now. Kids wouldn't sit for it."
3. Everyone has a favorite character. Your favorite character probably reveals something about you — or at least the show's producers think so. "I'm not a psychologist, but I can tell you there's a certain profiling you can do based on who your favorite character is," Parente said. And I always say, stay away from the Oscar the Grouch fans."
4. Elmo isn't the most popular character. Based on the show's research, it's Cookie Monster. "He has that singular obsession that adults and kids can relate to so well," Parente said. Though the kids do really love Elmo, too.
5. Ernie is more popular than Bert. And they're both incredibly popular in Germany.
6. Characters are customized for their international audiences. The show broadcasts all over the world now, and it targets, in each case, knowledge that kids in that country specifically need. For example, there is an HIV-positive Sesame Street character in South Africa to help kids understand that disease and how it is spread.
7. If you're a grown-up now, odds are you won't see some of your favorite characters much on the show anymore. Especially Mr. Snuffleupagus. "Snuffy certainly hasn't had much screen time" lately, Parente says.
Mr. Snuffleupagus could not be reached for comment.