Sesame Street was created by people who believed in the power of media and advertising to give kids an educational foundation before starting first grade. Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood used the new medium to nurture children’s emotional well-being. Making both shows happen took novel collaborations and non-intuitive applications of expertise to create new kinds of content programming. Both shows succeeded to benefit young kids and their parents across audience segments, socioeconomics and generations.
With Sesame Street, experts in media and developmental psychology set out to “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them” with guidance and funding from Carnegie Corporation. The multicultural cast and city street setting were championed by some and had to be sold in to others. Jim Henson and Frank Oz were creating sophisticated black humor and sponsored content primarily for college students before they and their Muppets got involved.
Fred Rogers was a student of the same school of childhood developmental psychology as Dr. Benjamin Spock. He got the Neighborhood off the ground bringing this together with experience from media production, content creation, and engaging deeply with kids and their parents in ways he wasn’t seeing on television. The folksy tone and production values championed by Fred were not universally held as a recipe for success.
The initial research grant and eventual $8 million in funding got the first season of Sesame Street produced. Show runners built and grew an engaged audience for the show through an outreach program with ongoing awareness, education and tune-in campaigns that ran nationwide. The new perspectives, strange bedfellows and novel approaches made for experimental and groundbreaking decades of Sesame Street. Budgets for the first seasons of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood were far less than $8 million. Production was driven by Fred Rogers’ DIY spirit and done from a single station in Pittsburgh, Pa. Fred Rogers was also integral to the funding and growth of public television for his show and everyone else’s.
“How We Got to Sesame Street” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” both document the creation of huge successes from unlikely recipes. They demonstrate where clarity in communication of vision and mission makes for execution beyond the reach of individual people and groups. Both show successes with building and granting trust in other points of view.