Sunny Days: The Children’s Television Revolution That Changed America by David Kamp

This book does such a nice job of telling the story behind Sesame Street and the origins of childrens TV in the 60’s and 70’s. Probably the most interesting aspect of Sesame Street and other shows was that they were very intentional in reaching non-white audiences, and the creators went above and beyond the times to try and put together educational programs that would bridge the education gap, expose suburban (white) kids to urban lives, and, quite literally, change the way that children learned. The shame of the story is that Sesame Street, and the like, was not at all immune to the politics of the times, and they had to navigate the political waters to remain relevant and successful. There is certainly a heap of nostalgia here from the author, as he also notes that today’s versions of these shows are not the same — they have become watered down versions of themselves, lacking the creativity, drive, and freedom of “play” that made the earlier versions so successful. As a parent, however, I don’t think I’ll ever forget the look on my kids faces when they saw these characters for the first time. They will always be special in our household, and Kemp makes sure that we remember how they started.

  • Sesame Street was revolutionary in many ways, not least in its embrace of urban shabbiness
  • what it stood for was hope
  • idea had been hatched by two friends at a dinner party, Joan Gantz Cooney, produce of documentaries for public TV and Lloyd Morrisett, a VP at the philanthropic carnegie corporation
  • they identified a social problem, that poor children were entering kindergarten without the learning skills of their middle class counterparts
  • potential solution was to use TV to better prepare these disadvantaged kids for school
  • human wealth — untapped potential of disadvantaged children, the contributions that these kids might make to the wider world if only given the chance
  • larger movement saw that media professionals and thought leaders leveraging their influence to help children learn and become better citizens
  • widespread support among the american people and their elected reps for investing in the country’s youngest citizens
  • Johnsons war on poverty was the elementary and secondary education act of 1965, which allocated federal funds to public education on an unprecedented scale
  • sought to close the achievement gap between children from lower income and middle class households
  • Johnson Publick Broadcasting Act of 1967, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, nonprofit entity that distributed federal money to local public TV stations, much of it for the purpose of financing educational programming
  • Fred Rogers “feelings are mentionable”
  • shows didn’t patronize their audiences, and they acknowledged their interior lives of kids
  • empathetic approach to engaging children was widely embraced
  • was shaped, for the most part, by progressive intellectuals, largely from the northeast, cultural elite, yet it was received by the public in good faith rather than as an uppity culture wars provocation
  • 1961, Newton Minow, chair of FCC
  • by 1961 average american was watching 6 hours of TV a day
  • Minow gave a speech, cited childrens TV as an area ripe for reinvention
  • Gilligans island named the show’s shipwrecked charter boat the SS Minnow as payback
  • Joan Ganz — nicknamed Saint Joan for her tireless, pioneering work in reinventing childrens TV
  • Fred Rogers grew up as a rich kid in latrobe PA, factory town where his parents owned the factories
  • parents were compassionate capitalists
  • Rogers came to believe that childrens TV represented the very worst of what his chosen medium had to offer — presented him with the opportunity to do better
  • started at WQED in Pittsburgh
  • WNDT channel 13 hired Ganz in NYC
  • joan made documentaries whose titles included Poverty, Anti Poverty and the poor and a Chance at the Beginning, reflected her intensifying focus on alleviating the effects of poverty
  • Roosevelt established the Office of Strategic Services during wartime, forerunner for CIA; OSS brought together large numbers of psychologists and social scientists for the first time
  • early 60’s cognitive psychologists were increasingly focusing on early childhood, with new studied indicating that the preschool years were a far more crucial phase of a childs development than had previously been understood
  • nursery school barely existed, in 1970 just 20 percent of all US three and four year olds were enrolled in a preschool
  • half the country’s school districts didn’t even offer KG to their five year olds
  • hard work generally fell to stay at home moms
  • black child from a poor neighborhood in NY was likely to come to school a few months behind in first grade and be a war and one half behind by third grade
  • a few teachers found a formula to integrate arts and performance into curriculum
  • the federal government became an ally
  • storm of progressive legislation and action — great society — 1965 — Johnson signed Elementary and Secondary Education Act, distributed federal funds to school districts with a high percentage of low income families
  • Head Start
  • availability of federal money, advance of cognitive psych, newly heightened interest in early childhood development, ideal environment for grand experiments in education
  • Cooney was on the road a lot, traveling throughout the US and Canada conferring with members of early childhood educational community on the merits of an explicitly educational, nationally broadcast TV show
  • Jim Henson was a young puppeteer who had risen to semi prominence on ABCs the jimmy dean show
  • deans sidekick and frequent duetting partner was Rowlf — he called his creations Muppets
  • Henson was already kind of rich — at maryland he made a name for himself with a show called sam and friends, a five minute mini program
  • made puppets out of felt and foam rubber
  • Kermit was fashioned from material salvaged from an old coat belonging to Hensons mother
  • sam and friends was not for kids
  • 1966 — Henson had a prominent career going in advertising
  • Rogers and Josey Carey had a show called The Children’s Corner, put WQED on the map in Pittsburgh
  • NBC brought it in the early 60’s but it wouldn’t sustain in NY; remained a staple in Pitt where it aired through 1961
  • Cooney, Rogers and Nordstrom were childrens advocates because they had a high regard for children, believing them capable of intellectual and emotional engagement, and of seeing through cutesy artifice
  • govt supplied 4M for the development of a model children’s tv program
  • 1968 — Carnegie corporation ford foundation and us office of education held a press conference in NY announcing the creation of a production entity that would oversee the labor intensive process of creating the new program — childrens television workshop CTW
  • rapid succession of songs cartoons and short films — fast pace (model was Laugh In
  • TV show’s bulls eye of a target was inner city poor four year olds
  • Captain Kangaroo alums were a big part of it
  • Cooney never lost sigh of the fact that she was putting on a show
  • this, in Stone;s (co creator) view was her masterstroke — thing that she figured out that no one had before her
  • Joan went looking for TV professionals with the intention of turning them into teachers
  • play fascinated Henson, and drove him as well
  • Mead School — new progressive elementary school in Greenwich, his kids were there
  • Dr Elaine de Beauport, philosophy of experiential learning — children learned by partaking in stimulating activities rather than by dutifully sitting at desks and observing a teacher at a blackboard
  • Hensons fourth child john was born in 1965 as dyslexic — inflection point in his and his wife life
  • forsook his lucrative ad career that had enriched him and raised his national profile
  • muppets conferred upon the nascent show a vital and spiritual identity that would set it apart from other childrens programming — furrier, featherier, weirder, cleverer
  • monsters were not scary beasts but agents of comedy and catharsis
  • Joe Raposo — songwriter — musical atmosphere unique for childrens T — chill, fluid, freewheeling, worlds away from the scary toy town and noisy faux sousa brass that underscored earlier kids programming
  • seminars held in summer of 1968
  • symbolic representation — learning shapes, numbers 1 to 10, letters of the alphabet
  • cognitive processes, understanding relational concepts such as size, shape, position and distance, reasoning and problem solving
  • the child and his world — teaching the concepts of the self, social units and natural environments versus man made ones
  • young viewers attention wandered during the live segments
  • prompted the integration of hensons muppets into the street scenes — Big Bird and Oscar
  • mister rogers neighborhood went national in february of 1968
  • both programs bore the imprint of social sciences
  • rogers had help with dr margaret mc garland of Pitt school of medicine
  • show’s transitional moments helped children navigate daily transitions in their own lives
  • music served as a running commentary on the episode — twinkly and easy swinging most of the time, but dissonant and mildly ominous when it had to be
  • rogers was exposing an american audience to jazz
  • collaborative, playful, welcoming of all races
  • children weren’t so much watching TV as they were entering a world
  • rogers was a man of iron will and uncommon principle, fearless in taking the program to places where children’s TV had not previously ventured
  • program also allied itself with the civil rights movement
  • memoirs of teachers who documented their struggles to make a difference in inner city public school systems ravaged by white flight and institutional neglect — same period as seseme
  • Steve Joseph — NYC teacher — impressed upon his students that writing was akin to talking or singing — means of self expression
  • The Me Nobody Knows: Children’s Voices from the Ghetto — he published, sold more than half a million copies
  • sesame set wanted to be a inner city street
  • may have been a sanitized version of the ghetto, but it wasn’t antiseptic
  • Stone’s decided that the brownstone to which the stoop was attached would be owned by a black couple
  • “neighborhood present a positive image of interracial harmony and a community untied through its pride and sense of responsibility”
  • ghetto as a place not to be avoided but celebrated and heard from
  • stage version of Me Nobody Knows snowballed into a proper show off broadway in 1970
  • create awareness in inner city neighborhoods that the show existed
  • Sesame Street centers — where families could view the show
  • November 1969 premiere
  • interracial cast offered another reason for black viewers to tune in — see themselves represented on screen
  • groundbreaking for 1969 — adult hosts supplemented by a mix of black and white child visitors
  • first season at least, Street was the blackest show on national TV
  • “when we first tested four year old black children and asked them if they wanted a black doll or a white doll, they wanted a white doll. but after a year of watching people like themselves on TV, they wanted the black doll. that was an undeniable effect”
  • by default, up against a deadline, Sesame Street (the name for the show) was made the final choice from a suggestion of staff members
  • short, simple sixty second form used by TV and advertisers in commercials to sell products is used here to teach numbers and letters
  • debut drew 2M households
  • show was both joyful and mysterious
  • Street had no problem drawing guests from show business and public life, on a level previously unheard of for a childrens program
  • without even realizing it, kids were learning how to learn
  • Hold On — second song on his debut solo album from 1970, Lennon/Ono, Lennon gutturally croaked COOKIE during an instrumental break
  • children took to the show immediately
  • instant hit — end of first season it was reaching an estimated 7M of the US’s 12M preschoolers — number that would climb to 9M by 1975
  • show was doing its job educationally
  • effective medium for teaching small children
  • 3 year olds are able to learn many skills that have traditionally been introduced at later ages
  • struggled some with disadvantaged children though
  • cast members came to realize that they were rock stars to every child who had already seen the program
  • the live shows and public outreach campaigns in americas inner cities reaped their desired result
  • by 1973 it was virtually an institution with ghetto kids
  • stacked as it was with unabashed liberals, Street was accepted by most parents at face value, as an educational experiment that was delivering on its promise
  • outside the office of education, Nixons people regarded public TV in general with suspicion
  • as the 70’s progressed, produce income would cover an ever larger percentage of CTW’s operating costs
  • Goldwater — happy to lend his support in the early 70’s to Cooney and her show — washington was a more collegial place back then
  • Street was both the product of and the beneficiary of an uncommonly progressive skewing time, so progressive, in fact, that most of the political blowback that the program received in its early years came not from the right but from the left
  • National Organization for Women — displeased with how women were represented, underrepresented
  • plenty of work to do in terms of achieving gender parity
  • over the course of the 70’s, more women were added to Streets cast
  • CTW continued to regard Street as an experiment rather than as a finished product
  • for two years, the workshop worked with a committee of latin american advisors on its bilingual and bicultural material
  • Cooney’s willingness to engage with her critics was crucial to streets evolution
  • writing staff, which was mostly white, heeded the actors advice on the show’s spanish language segments
  • many of the actors suggestions were incorporated into the program
  • modeling a world for children in which difference was noticeable but unremarkable
  • these were the people in your neighborhood
  • most complaints were of reverse racism, that stretch is TOO black
  • may 1970 — mississippi commission for TV voted to ban it because of the integration — reversed eventually
  • accusations of racism were more troubling to the workshop
  • accusation that the program was both detrimental to and disliked by black people — piece in New York Mag
  • one provable criticism was that it was not closing the achievement gap between advantaged and disadvantaged kids
  • the “closing the gap” rhetoric was a setup for failure
  • “in order to depict reality, street should not add more stridency and bitterness to the harshness already present in a childs environment” — belief of some of the staff
  • new Muppet — Roosevelt Franklin, inner city black child
  • usually the default setting for the muppets behaviorally and verbally was white
  • The Year of Roosevelt Franklin — entire record album devoted to him
  • extension of the black arts movement
  • dedicated segment on Street, roosevelt Franklin Elementary School
  • he was a figure of controversy from the get go, caught up in the fraught racial politics of the day
  • dropped as a series regular in 1977
  • still held in warm regard by Black people — introduced children to multiculturalism as no TV program or other articled of childrens culture had before it
  • new normal in which black culture was not a marginalized but a fundamental part of mainstream american life
  • first truly multicultural cast on TV — first show to integrate educational content with full on entertainment the first childrens program that adults watched in large numbers — lightening rod
  • Action for Children’s TV- ACT — formed in Boston by four women
  • 1969 — ACT filed a petition with the FCC proposing nothing less than the complete decommercialization of children’s TV
  • climate was right for the crusade
  • ACT believed that TV held enormous educati9onal potential for children
  • as a result of their pressure, and public relations campaigns, all three networks felt compelled to create an executive position for director of childrens programming
  • Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids — CBS in 1972
  • Cosby’s desire to position himself as an educator and role model
  • Cosby was publicly the very picture of a family man
  • affective development of young viewers
  • lesson in morality and decency
  • TV show where black kids could recognize a version of themselves on screen
  • at UMASS cosby created and wrote fat albert was his graduate work for a PHD
  • reached 8M children per episode on its peak and with Street, helped normalize black culture and blackness itself for a national audience
  • black children are not by nature stupid or lazy — they are not hoodlums, they are not junkies, they are you, they are me — he wrote in dissertation
  • Schoolhouse Rock — came about organically, people who did it were ad men
  • David McCall had his own agency, rallied other ad agencies to join his own in a coordinated effort to unsell vietnam via ads
  • nearly 50 organizations participated in unsell the war effort
  • what if the rudiments of multiplication were turned into lyrics and set to catchy pop melodies? got the idea after his kid struggled with math
  • show used jazz players and composers seemed to intuitively grasp the nmusical lingua franca of educational childrens TV
  • acclaimed by adults as it was loved by kids
  • 1971 — FCC Ascertainment Primier, document
  • process why which stations determined the needs of their local audience, especially where the public interest was concerned
  • Magic Garden — most highly rated regional program in the history of childrens TV- attraceted a viewership of national audience proportions in the millions
  • Electric Company — for kids in the next age group up from Street
  • framed as remedial reading program
  • sing along song
  • sketches and songs that broke down words into their phonetic components
  • silhouette blending — rhythmically recited sequences set to music in which a man and woman seen in intimate, silhouetted profile, effectively practiced procreative word copulation, each providing his or her own half word in order to conceive a whole
  • phonics as pop art
  • eye is initially drawn to the middle of the screen — words appeared above The Electric Company’s actors rather than below them
  • Morgan Freemans Easy Reader, who dressed like Hendrix and spoke like Sly Stone
  • The Electric Company went for tenured performers
  • racially diverse cast
  • goofier and more rambunctious than Street
  • actually teaching kids how to read
  • quickly embraced by educators — within months of its introduction, the show was being used in nearly a quarter of all primary schools in the US as a teaching tool and it was also reaching an audience of roughly 2M who were watching at home after school
  • to this da, no TV program has been more widely used in US classrooms was in its 70’s heyday
  • being watched by immigrants who were using it as a de facto ESL course
  • Boston — WGBH — created more programs central to PBS’s identity in the 650’s and 70’s than any other public station in the country
  • Masterpiece Theatre, Julia Child, Bob Vila
  • bastion of tolerance and progressivism
  • open mindedness and intellectual freedom
  • Zoom In, Zoom Out
  • presented a picture of childrens liberation that was orderly and cooperative
  • showcase for user generated content, its stars encouraged kids at home to send in their ideas
  • zoomed to national prominence, euphoric watch for preteens and an aspirational one for their little siblings
  • arguably the most sylistically radical of all the kids shows of its period in its empowerment of its cast and viewers, and in its general lack of artifice
  • deliberate in assembling its casts, which were composed of black white hispanic and east asian children
  • preemptive strike against prejudice
  • first season predated by two years the apex of the Boston housing crisis in which some white bostonians, reacting to a court ordered plan to desegregate public schools by busing black kids to white schools and vice versa demonstrated angrily by pelting buses full of black students with eggs and withdrew their own children from school to protest
  • clear picture of youth integration in its idealized state
  • public TV was better at churning out watchable, effective educational content than commercial TV was
  • Marlo Thomas … Free to be you and me; she was a pretty famous TV access annoyed by gender issues in TV shows
  • Thomas and her crowd were hoping to do nothing less than shape the very ethos of a generation, thereby creating a more just, enlightened future
  • album used the band from the UK The New Seekers
  • Free to be the song promised a better wold than the one that old white men in power had dunked up with pollution and war
  • released in 1972 by Bell Records, a small subsidiary of Columbia Pictures
  • pink cover and the Ms logo stamped on its front
  • Ms “very first record that is designed for use by children of all ages, colors and sex, without being preachy or moralistic — a record that teaches human values by celebrating laugher, love, and freedom of choice”
  • five hundred thousand copies in the US and platinum in two years
  • loudest critical voices came not from the right but from the left
  • unexpected financial boom to the newly formed Ms. Foundation for Women — provided grants to women led organizations and businesses and to Ms magazine itself, which, because of its unabashedly political, feminist content, had difficulty attracting big ticket advertisers
  • book and TV special
  • 1974 — TV special without any demanded cuts, 27 percent of all TV’s in the US tuned in to it — huge number for a prime time program aimed at school aged children
  • culmination of the childrens liberation movement
  • revolutionary childrens primer on feminism and gender politics
  • light hearted symbol of massive social change
  • LP was played repeatedly on home turntables book version was as best seller the songs became a staple of school assemblies and community theater, and the TV special was adopted for classroom use in 16MM and film strip versions
  • many children who did not own a copy of the record at home heard it replayed in schools and other social settings making its influence greater than the numbers alone suggest
  • it was a shared culture
  • arguably the most widely and warmly embraced artifact of progressive propaganda in US history
  • “we can raise our children better than we’ve been doing it”
  • in the 80’s, gradual diminution in passion and urgency in the realm of smart TV for children
  • CTW — never again approached the level of intuition that it had with its first two programs
  • Reagan — chairman of FCC was Mark Fowler, rolled his eyes at the very idea of TV’s obligation to serve public interest
  • wanted to deregulate the industry
  • if the marketplace demandsd nothing more than a vast wasteland than so be it
  • this wasn’t an issue for the government to get mixed up in
  • TV’s programs based on toys proliferated
  • backslide into “gendered” marketing of toys
  • late 1970’s New Right emerged, collection of political groups dedicated to family values agenda that was anti feminist, anti ERA anti gay
  • James Dobson — Focus on the Family
  • Falwell — Moral Majority
  • ascension of Reagan to the office effectively spelled the end of the original sunny days era
  • flow of money stopped
  • 1990’s offerred hope through the childrens TV act — set caps on the amount of advertising that could rn during childrens programming hours and required the FCC to police TV stations and cable providers
  • oversight was lax — but childrens tV act fostered a new awareness of the need for better, smarter and expressly educational TV programming for kids
  • 90’s and oughts had a mini-reniassance and reboots
  • Street that airs today is markedly different from the one that debuted in 1969
  • Elmo’s World — most elemental that it has ever been
  • new characters lacked the esoteric verve and personality of their predecessors, and were more than a little cutie pie
  • HBO would become the primary funded of Street — optics weren’t great
  • averaged just thirty odd episodes a season
  • 2019 — now airs exclusively on HBO max, half hour format which is basically an expanded extravagantly art directed Elmo’s World
  • kiddie show
  • new story lines harken back to origins as a program for the marginalized and disadvantaged
  • unending quest to identify the difficulties that children go through
  • inspirational example of what humanity is capable of when it extends its reach — the potential, latent but still present in us today, to accomplish inconceivably great things

I love books, I have a ton of them, and I take notes on all of them. I wanted to share all that I have learned and will continue to learn. I hope you enjoy.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store