Big Bird’s nest has moved to a tree. Elmo has moved from an apartment into a brownstone. His best friend, Abby Cadabby, loves her new community garden. And while Oscar the Grouch still makes a trash can his home, he now pops up through an underground tunnel of connecting recycling and compost bins.
Welcome to the new “Sesame Street,” where the word on the street this season is C-H-A-N-G-E.
After 45 years on the public broadcaster PBS, Big Bird, Elmo and the rest of the “Sesame Street” crew are settling into a renovated set as well as a new television home on the premium cable network HBO. Season 46 starts Saturday morning.
“Everything has been changing around here,” Carmen Osbahr, the puppeteer who for 26 years has performed as the turquoise, hug-loving bilingual monster Rosita, said recently, during a break from filming the coming Valentine’s Day special.
Festooned across the set were red and pink valentines. Heart-shaped cookies with red gumdrops sat on the counter at Hooper’s Store, which has undergone a Williamsburg-like renovation.
“It is more like things look now,” Osbahr added. “When Sesame Street was created, it was kind of more like New York Bronx. Now, Oscar has a recycling can. That is amazing.”
“Sesame Street” is performing a delicate balancing act between old and new; even as it seeks to preserve its mission of using the power of entertainment media to educate children, it is trying to remain relevant and available to a generation of children who do not distinguish between a television and a mobile phone screen.
“If you know the audience, you can serve them better, tell better stories, and they will love you more,” said Brown Johnson, executive vice president and creative director at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit group behind the program.
To that end, episodes will be trimmed from an hour to a snappier half-hour, which is viewed as a more manageable amount of time for children to focus. The classic theme song and intro will get a new spin — the song still asks for directions to Sesame Street, but the intro sequence will for the first time take place on the set, which remains at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens.
The new season will feature fewer celebrity and parody segments, largely because preschoolers often do not know the stars or understand the references. More powerful than having a boldfaced name present the letter of the day, Johnson says, is to have Gwen Stefani sing about being a best friend. Other celebrity appearances include Pharrell Williams singing “B Is for Book” and Ne-Yo singing “You’ve Got a Body So Move It.” One spoof this season, “Orange Is the New Snack,” about bringing healthy snacks to preschool, airs on Jan. 30.
While Big Bird, Snuffleupagus, Oscar the Grouch, and Bert and Ernie still make appearances, story lines will feature a smaller group of young Muppets — Elmo, Abby, Cookie Monster and Rosita — so that children will see “familiar faces each week,” Johnson said.
This season’s curriculum has a sharper focus on kindness. That plays out in the episode “The Best Friend Band,” in which Elmo and Abby create a band, but are at odds trying to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” The song is too fast, too slow or too loud. The friends learn to compromise.
“What is going on in this world today is not very kind, so why not really make kindness part of a curriculum that kids need to practice?” Johnson said.
This is an especially pivotal year for “Sesame Street.” Facing a bleak financial picture — Sesame Workshop lost $7.4 million in fiscal 2015 and total operating revenues were down nearly 10 percent from 2014 — the new management team sought out HBO as a distribution partner. Under terms of the deal, HBO will have exclusive rights to “Sesame Street” for nine months. After that, it will be available free on PBS. The public broadcaster is now airing a season that features select episodes from the last five years.
Sesame and HBO executives characterized their deal, announced last August, as critical to securing the financial stability of the show. Yet the arrangement ignited criticism online and from some advocacy groups. “Sesame Street” was created to help children in underserved communities prepare for school. Moving the show to a premium cable channel raised concerns among critics about the widening divide between rich and poor. Others feared that HBO would exert a more commercial, less educational influence over programming.
Sesame Workshop has retained creative control, executives said. While HBO executives have visited the set — wide-eyed and wanting their pictures taken with the puppets — they have not interfered creatively, Johnson said.
“They don’t even ask for scripts or rough cuts or anything,” she added.
So far, the Sesame-HBO partnership has primarily involved working together to market the new season. Lisa Heller, a senior programming executive at HBO who has the recently added responsibility of children’s programming, said the Sesame team had four decades of producing the show and that HBO would be hard pressed to tell them how to improve.
Heller said the two groups would work more closely on planned collaborations of a spinoff series based on the “Sesame Street” Muppets and other new children’s series.
While many of the creative and production team members behind “Sesame Street” have worked at the show for many years — the executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente has been involved for 27 years and Caroll Spinney has performed as Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch since the show’s premiere in 1969 — there are a number of new executives.
Jeffrey Dunn, a veteran Nickelodeon executive, was named chief executive of Sesame Workshop in September 2014. Last April, he appointed a new team of executives, including Johnson, who was previously president of preschool entertainment at Nickelodeon and was behind the hit shows “Dora the Explorer” and “Blue’s Clues.”
Johnson said that while respecting the legacy of “Sesame Street,” she has tried to bring in the fresh perspective of keeping stories simple, experimenting and understanding today’s preschool audience and media landscape. The workshop, for example, recently sent puppeteers to visit with children at preschools and day care centers to get a better sense of who is on the other end of the camera.
Sesame also has started turning the first draft of scripts into storybooks and testing them with preschoolers. With the Valentine’s Day episode, for example, the original script told an emotional story about Elmo’s excitement for the holiday. But children were not able to define the holiday after reading the story.
The writers revised the script. On a Tuesday morning last December, the production team was working on the new story line: Elmo is distraught. A dog got hold of the card he made for Abby, and the valentine is a soggy mess. Alan, the proprietor of Hooper’s Store, consoles Elmo, telling him that the holiday is less about presents and more about caring for other people.
“It’s not about the cookies or the cards,” Parente said, sitting in a director’s chair and overseeing the filming. “It’s the thought that counts.”
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