Sesame Street in the UK
A few months after the 1969 premiere of the children's television program Sesame Street in the U.S., talks began in the U.K. to broadcast the programme or develop a co-production on British television. The idea was controversial at the time; the BBC was opposed to it, and ITV was reluctant. Response from parents, educators, and television officials to the show was varied, ranging from distaste to acceptance. After much public debate, the BBC chose not to air Sesame Street for several reasons, including the show's educational methods, its creation for American audiences, and the U.K.'s long history of quality educational television programmes for young children. ITV, after much research, including a report entitled Reactions to Sesame Street in Britain, 1971, chose to air Sesame Street on a limited basis. It then switched to Channel 4 in the 1980s and aired there until 2001, when it was pulled from its regular schedule, replaced by The Hoobs.
The 1971 report stated that educators "abhorred" Sesame Street, while parents and young children viewed it more positively. The report was sceptical of the educational methods used to produce the show, and agreed with the BBC that quality children's programming was already in place in the U.K., although it recognised that the public debate surrounding the show had improved children's television in Britain. It also stated that the producers of children's television programmes in Britain should follow the producers of Sesame Street's example and base their content on the feedback of its audience.
Sesame Street premiered on public broadcasting television stations in the US on 10 November 1969, to positive reviews, some controversy, and high ratings. A few months after its debut, producers from several countries requested that the Children's Television Workshop (CTW) create and produce versions of Sesame Street in their countries, which came to be called "international co-productions". Producers in the UK began discussing plans to broadcast either a co-production or the American broadcast on British television within six months after the show debuted in the US.
The BBC disliked the series from the very beginning, and refused to air a British version, claiming that there were already children's television programmes that accomplished the same goals as Sesame Street. Throughout 1970 and 1971, debates raged in the British media about broadcasting the show in the U.K. Joan Ganz Cooney, the creator of Sesame Street, expressed her hopes that a British version of the show could expose British children to "something more telling than The Magic Roundabout". Monica Sims, head of children's programming at the BBC at the time, stated, "This sounds like indoctrination, and a dangerous extension of the use of television". A teacher in North London showed the series to over 400 educators and reported that the most negative feedback was that Sesame Street was "brash and vulgar but utterly lovable".
As the public debate over the series increased, Sims wrote a letter of reply in The Guardian, outlining the BBC's decision and their objections regarding Sesame Street. They rejected the show's appearance in the U.K. because although the network aired other American programmes, as well as programmes produced all over the world, Sesame Street was produced specifically for American children, who were not exposed to the same high quality children's programmes in Britain. Sims and the BBC claimed that the philosophy behind the show was what they called "wallpaper television", which encouraged children to watch television for several hours, something British programmes discouraged. The BBC also eschewed Sesame Street's didactic teaching methods, which the BBC felt was inappropriate in mass media. The BBC was against children's programming that dictated what young children should learn, so airing Sesame Street would go against twenty years of children's television programmes in the U.K. Finally, Sims and the BBC believed that since Sesame Street was "carefully geared" to the needs of disadvantaged children in the U.S., much of the terminology, including the words "trash" or "zip code" would confuse four-year olds in Britain.
Sims and the BBC's decision engendered both praise and disappointment, and generated an investigation into the network's scheduling practices. The controversy also stalled development of a British co-production. In 1974, the BBC broadcast 13 episodes of The Electric Company, another CTW show, for an eight-week run. Their rationale to air it was that the show was a part of school curriculum, accompanied by back-up resources such as books and resources. An independent assessment was conducted afterwards. With the BBC's refusal to air Sesame Street, the debate over its place on British TV passed to ITV.
After the BBC rejected Sesame Street, the Independent Television Authority (ITA) considered giving it a network slot on ITV, after concluding that further research was needed. In March and April 1971, HTV broadcast a three-week weekday test run; the series was received favourably, but the ITA concluded the more testing would be required. They passed the enquiry to The Authority Schools Committee, who authorised LWT, Grampian Television and HTV to broadcast another test run of Sesame Street, under the understanding that its permission "should not be construed as educational endorsement of Sesame Street for British children". HTV's second trial ran in December 1971 for a three-week daily run, and LWT and Grampian broadcast it for thirteen weeks on Saturday mornings from September to December 1971.
After the trials, Grampian dropped the series until July 1978, but HTV and LWT continued to air it. The ITA and The Authority Schools Committee agreed to allow both companies broadcast it after their study concluded in March 1971, but three ITV companies agreed to air it the following year. Like the BBC, some ITV companies also opposed Sesame Street, so some ITV companies created their own original children's programmes. This coincided with the British government's decision to require extra hours of children's programming in the afternoon.
Sesame Street broadcast dates in Britain
- HTV - 22 March 1971
- LWT and Grampian: 25 September 1971
- Granada: 8 July 1972
- UTV: 6 January 1973
- Westward Television: May 1973: Originally on Sundays, before moving to Saturdays in summer 74.
- Southern Television: 19 November 1977
- ATV and Border: 3 June 1978
- STV 16 March 1979 - Sundays.
- Anglia Television - Summer 1981
- Tyne Tees and Yorkshire - 29 March 1982
ITV's federal structure, which allowed each television company to decide what programmes it would broadcast, meant that it took over ten years before Sesame Street was broadcast in all parts of the UK. The show was broadcast on a Saturday mornings, or during week-day school holidays. ITV continued to broadcast the series until early 1987, when after an 8-month hiatus, it reappeared daily on Channel 4 from Monday 30 November 1987 until March 2001, However it did continue to air on Saturday mornings until Saturday 22nd September 2001 when it was replaced by The Hoobs. Sesame Street has also been repeated on satellite and cable channels; TCC from 1994-1996 as part of Tiny TCC, it was also on Disney Channel from 1998-1999 as part of "Hunnypot" and on Nick Jr. from 2000-2003.
Independent Television Authority Report
Reactions to Sesame Street in Britain 1971 was a report commissioned by the ITA in association with the National Council for Educational Technology and three ITV companies. The report was not distributed or published in the national press at first because the ITA believed that the increase in British children's programmes had decreased the demand for Sesame Street's broadcast in the U.K., although both ITV and the BBC used the report to improve children's programming. The report found that educators "abhorred" Sesame Street for discrediting and possibly corrupting educational objectives. It also questioned the success of the educational approaches used by the show.
Frank Blackwell, the director of the primary extension programmes for the National Counsel for Educational Technology, carried out the research reported in ITA's report. Both children and their parents were questioned about their interaction with Sesame Street, and sociologists watched children's reactions while watching it. They found that 98—99% of young viewers enjoyed it, and were surprised to discover that most of the negative reactions were from educators. Most parents had positive reactions.
The report cited the concerns raised by Americans such as John Holt and Arnold Arnold about the educational techniques used in Sesame Street, as well as the validity of the research used by the CTW to produce the show. The investigators recognised the show's success in the U.S., but agreed with the BBC that both the ITA and the BBC had over twenty years of experience producing high-quality educational programmes for children, unlike in the U.S., where the production of Sesame Street was the first time a "proper pre-school television programme" was made. The report also agreed that the BBC's carefully selected imported programmes upheld their high standards.
In the UK, the organisations involved in the production of educational television programmes were small, so it was easy for them to work together, thus forming a pool of knowledge accessible to few outside the industry. As a result, it was difficult to compare Sesame Street and British-made series, although Sesame Street helped galvanise the BBC and ITV to produce additional educational programmes for children. The report recommended that British shows follow the example of the producers and creators of Sesame Street, and adjust the content of their programmes based upon their audience's feedback. The report concluded that without Sesame Street, discussion would not have occurred, and the changes to both American and British children's programming would not have happened as quickly.
The ITA's report found that most parents reported that their children were interested in Sesame Street. Parents also reported that children responded well to the show, found the series funny, that it held their attention, and that most learned from viewing it. Most of their children requested to watch the show again. Parents' criticism of the show was that the pace was too fast, that some of the songs included were poor-in-quality, and that children were confused regarding the use of upper and lower case letters. Half of the parents questioned believed that a fifty-minute children's programme was too long. Parents' criticisms of Sesame Street tended to vary depending upon the region. 64% of parents in the HTV test area and 43% of parents in the LWT area considered the show too American.
Overall, the feedback from young viewers was positive. The report found that children's attention levels were highest during the show's jazz segments, and that their favorite Muppets were Bert and Ernie. In the Grampian area, some children found the use of letter names rather than sounds confusing, especially after they began school.
Absence from UK screens
As of 2011, the broadcast of Sesame Street in the UK was limited to BBC Northern Ireland, which has aired Sesame Tree since 2008. The Disney Channel and Channel 5 broadcast three of the show's spin-offs, Play With Me Sesame, Elmo's World, and Bert and Ernie's Great Adventures. Channel 5 preferred to dub British voices onto their imported shows, and feels that utilising puppets is outdated. The BBC has stood by its original decision, and its position that other children's programmes in the UK cover similar learning themes and values.
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