Growing Up With a Three-Minute Attention Span

In 1973 I became Saturday Night’s television critic, a position I held through 1980. I found myself focusing on the nature of the medium and the the differences between Canadian and American culture as revealed by looking at my television screen. I was fascinated by Sesame Street.

THE SUN NEVER SETS on Sesame Street. The popular American children’s programme is now seen in almost sixty countries around the world. It’s on television in Brazil, in Indonesia, in Japan, in Pago Pago, and in Zambia. Even countries such as Poland, Yugoslavia and Romania have experimented with it. There’s a Plaza Sesamo, a Via Sesame, a Bonjour Sesame a Sesamstrasse, a Sesami Storito, a Sezmulica.

Sesame Street, which has just completed its sixth year, has become the most widely seen (and studied) television programme in the world. It’s probably also the most widely admired. And with good reason. Whatever its educational value, there’s no doubt that the programme is enormously entertaining. Patterned on the commercial, its brilliant use of just about every technique known to television simply dazzles the eye and the mind of the viewer. The Muppets are superb — they’re the best puppets most of us have ever seen. My favourite is the cookie monster — I’d like to be one when I grow up — and the Muppet spoofs of fairy tales are a delight.

Some countries — Canada, for instance — pay for the right to use the programme; “underdeveloped” countries have it given to them gratis. In Canada, although the CBC continues to pay lip service to the importance of its other programmes for young children, Mr. Dressup, The Friendly Giant and Mon Ami, it’s clear from the kind of money and attention lavished on Canadian inserts for Sesame Street that it has become the cornerstone of CBC programming for pre-schoolers. My guess is that the CBC spends a hundred thousand dollars a year producing 120 half hour episodes of Mr. Dressup; it spends several hundred thousand dollars on seventy Canadian inserts for Sesame Street, which have an average length of one and a half minutes. The latter sum is available for children’s programming only because it’s for Sesame Street, which CBC management, along with everyone else, fell in love with several years ago.

The amount of Canadian content in Sesame Street grows each year. In 1973 there were five minutes of inserts in each hour carried by the CBC; last year there were eight to ten minutes of inserts; this year there are fifteen. The CBC is now negotiating with the Children’s Television Workshop in New York, which produces Sesame Street, for permission to include twenty minutes of Canadian material in each programme beginning in January, 1976. In January of 1977, it’s hoped, it will be thirty minutes, and the setting will be a fictitious street in working-class Montreal. The programme will then likely have a nice continental title — Sesame Street North.

According to the present contract, the CBC is permitted to replace Spanish items in the American Sesame Street with French ones; to insert mood pieces (the sequence of ponies running on Sable Island is an example); and to insert items that teach children about the cultural and physical diversity of Canada. New York doesn’t permit the CBC to use puppets (as if the Muppets needed protection from competition). All the number and letter sequences must be taken from the American show with the exception of the letter Z. Given the different pronunciations of that letter in the two countries, Canada has New York’s permission to delete as many “zees ”as it can and to substitute “zeds.”

Despite the programme’s obvious charms, Sesame Street does have its detractors. The Mexican writer Guillermo Tenorio describes Plaza Sesamo as “an example of imperialistic intrusion into the social, educational, and political life of the countries in which is is shown.” The Peruvian government concurs, and has banned the programme. Jack Hood Vaughn, former director of the U.S. Peace Corps and a former ambassador to Colombia, who was until recently director of international development for Sesame Street, disagrees with the criticism. According to Vaughn, “If you call this imperialism, you might as well call kindergarten an example of German imperialism.” The French version of Sesame Street, he insists, “looks so French you can’t believe it’s a U.S. product.”

There are other criticisms. Sesame Street is seen in Britain, but not on the BBC, whose head of children’s programming, Monica Sims, asks: “do we really have to import commercial hard-selling techniques into [Britain] because … [American] children will not watch anything quiet or thoughtful?” Others are critical of the programme’s “violence,” which they see as typically American. Cartoon characters frequently solve their problems violently — by biting or whatever. Undesireable people are swallowed up by holes that magically appear in the ground, or they’re crushed under the weight of some massive object. Letters are smashed or get bumped off the screen. (‘violence’ of this kind isn’t found in the Canadian inserts; there’s a determined effort to avoid it.)

I love watching the programme and have no doubt whatever about its entertainment value. But, like a number of others, I have serious reservations about its pedagogical effectiveness. The programme was originally designed to bridge the gap between ‘privileged’ and ‘underprivileged’ children. The gap that has been bridged is the one between three-year-old and five-year-old ‘privileged’ children. Research has shown that any three-to-five-year-olds who regularly watch Sesame Street, whatever their race, sex and class, know the alphabet and the numbers from one to twenty better than those who don’t watch it. Given the constant repetition, it would be surprising if they didn’t. Indeed, more kids are probably entering school with the alphabet firmly fixed in their noggins than ever before.

But so what? Knowing the alphabet doesn’t make one literate any more than knowing the names of tools makes one a carpenter. What I wonder, given Sesame Street’s forty to fifty different items per hour and its assumption that children have at best a three-minute attention span, is whether one can reasonably expect a child who’s been taught the alphabet this way to focus happily on a static printed page. My guess is that the answer is no, and that what Sesame Street is doing more than anything else is conditioning kids not to read but to watch television. One study has already shown, not surprisingly, that the least popular segments on the programme are those in which books appear. I can’t imagine Sesame Street graduates growing up to read Victorian novels. I can’t imagine them sitting through a speech by Robert Stanfield. Or reading a serious magazine or newspaper to find out what’s going on in the world. I can imagine them watching lots of programmes like Mannix, and keeping up with the world through the three-minute segments on TV newscasts.

I have a number of other reservations about the programme. Although Sesame Street has improved somewhat in this respect it continues to be sexist — males still outnumber females more than two to one. (The Canadian inserts are much less sexist than the American.) And, although again there’s been some improvement, we continue to get puppets who are human in their emotions — which is fine — but humans who tend to be saccharine. As well, kids continue to be taught a number of ‘invisible’ lessons on Sesame Street in preparation for school: that learning is a passive activity initiated by grown-ups; that there is usually only one right answer to a question (“Which of these things is not like the others?”); that learning how to figure out what answer the teacher wants is an important part of learning; and that one never goes off on tangents.

I find myself very much in sympathy with the American critic of education, John Holt, who has written that “Sesame Street … seems built on the idea that its job is to get children ready for school. Suppose it … said, ‘We are the school.’ Suppose it asked … not how to help children get better at the task of pleasing … teachers, but how to help them get better at … learning from the world and people around them.” I hope the kind of Sesame Street he envisages isn’t going to limit itself to the frenetic mentality of the commercial and the assumption that people can’t concentrate on anything for longer than three minutes.

— Saturday Night, July/August 1975

Share this: