"Sesame Street" is not afraid to walk down dark alleys. The show doesn't shy away from discussing the effects of the economy on families or loss perpetuated by war.
“It isn't so much kids’ television as it is a coping mechanism for parents,” Gary Knell told the Alibi in an interview. Knell is the president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind the award-wining show.
Knell was in town to promote a one-hour prime time special hosted by Katie Couric called “When Families Grieve.” The episode discusses the loss of a parent and the tragic toll it takes on families. The episode will air on Wednesday, April 14, at 7 p.m. on KNME-5.
In the episode, Elmo has to work through the death of his uncle Jack. The special also follows four families who have lost a parent to cancer, a heart attack, suicide and war.
"Sesame Street" has been actively supporting military families through its Talk, Listen, Connect program by providing them with resources and emotional support. “We learned that there are 800,000 preschool kids of active duty military guard or reserve whose parents are being deployed, coming home, redeployed, coming home, being redeployed again,” Knell said. “The traumas and stresses in these households have been enormous.”
The special tells viewers that feelings of loss, anger, desperation and loneliness are normal in the grieving process. For a healthy recovery, the episode says, it is vital that parents and kids talk with others about their feelings in order to accept their permanent loss.
Exploring the grief that comes with loss is the latest effort by the television series to reinforce positive methods to deal with life's problems. “ 'Sesame Street' grew out of the idea that television was teaching,” Knell said. “It is a show that is a window into reality and not just a fantasy program like so many children's television programs.”
Knell said "Sesame Street" molds its programming around the three tenants of conflict resolution, which he described as self esteem, empathy and knowledge that personal actions can cause pain.
“If you go back and look at the roots of the show, it started out of the war on poverty in the 1960s," he said. "The show was banned in Mississippi the first year because it showed an interracial neighborhood."
The active messaging of "Sesame Street" has even reformed the signature behavior of some of the show's most recognizable characters. “We are doing a lot of work on what we call Healthy Habits for Life, which focuses on simple messages like 'sometimes foods,’ ” Knell said. "It's a tool to try to promote healthier eating. So a mom in Albuquerque can tell her kid, Look, even the Cookie Monster can't eat cookies all the time."
In order to promote healthier nutrition for children, “Sesame Street” producers have limited Cookie Monster's consumption. Now, the Cookie Monster can be seen on TV devouring plates full of kale and apples. “ ‘Saturday Night Live’ accused us of making him the Pilates Monster," Knell said.
However, concerned "Sesame Street” purists should not worry. The Cookie Monster still loves his cookies. “He is not the Veggie Monster,” Knell said.
These are changes the show made in order to compete in a cluttered media market where "Sesame Street" is not the only game in town. “We have to make ‘Sesame’ compelling,” Knell said. “We have a mantra in our office: 'If you don't like change, you'll like irrelevancy even less.' ”