National Press Club

Sesame Street Must 'Innovate or Melt Away,' CEO Tells Luncheon

December 9, 2009 | By Ellyn Ferguson |

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Sesame Street has long been the place where preschool kids learn a thing or two, but the media industry might take away a few lessons as the programs marks its 40th year, Gary E. Knell said at a Luncheon Dec. 8.

Innovation, relevance, research, targeting audience and thinking globally are the keys to Sesame Street’s longevity, Knell, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, told an audience that included representatives of the preschool crowd.

The program began in 1969 to turn the “vast wasteland” of television into a teaching tool, Grover said. It was such unconventional educational tool that the major networks and the Public Broadcasting System rejected it. PBS eventually became Sesame Street’s home. The program is viewed in more than 140 countries.

Knell said the ongoing challenge for Sesame Street is to harness the educational potential of the vastness of electronic media.

Many Boomers recall watching Sesame Street on television, but electronic media is changing that experience for the generations after them.

“This is the first year when more viewers will access Sesame Street content by other platforms than broadcast television. Sesame Street now has broad digital distribution,” Knell said.

The lesson, he said, is “innovate or melt away.”

“Media convergence has arrived big time. We’ve got to use these applications, use the Black Berrys, use mobile phones as a teaching tool,” he said.

For example, Sesame Street is launching an E-book program. Free electronic versions will be available on Sesame Street’s Web site.

“Since literacy is a big focus of what we do, these E-books will be a natural extension of our programs,” Knell said.

He often reminds his staff that “our boss is a 4-year-old girl with a remote control. If she doesn’t like our program, she’s switching us off, and we’re not doing our mission of educating children.”

Knell acknowledged those bosses by sharing the podium with Grover, the loveable but easily confused blue-furred monster

Grover got chuckles from the audience as he discussed the fashion pieces he designed for a debut at the National Dress Club. He recovered quickly from his disappointment after Knell told him they were guests at the dowdier National Press Club.

Ever helpful, Grover suggested a possible topic for Knell’s speech - getting firmer abdominals in less than 30 days.

“As you can see by my amazing physique, I know a lot about rock-hard abs,” Grover declared.

The audience had Grover and other Sesame Street inhabitants on their minds during the question-and-answer session.

A number of questions focused on the 10-year deal Sesame Workshop reached with Hasbro Inc. to manufacture and sell toys and games based on Sesame Street. Hasbro will replace Mattel as the non-profit group’s toymaker.

“Is Mattel in the room?” Knell asked after the third or fourth question.

Knell said Sesame Workshop gets about two-thirds of its income from the sale of books, videos, toys, international program distribution and other products. The annual budget is $130 million for research, production and other operating costs, he said.

“Hasbro is a very forward-looking company. The brand will not change,” Knell said. "I hope that we will see innovation in educational toys.”