Sesame Street is an icon in children’s programming--kids in more than 140 countries watch Big Bird, Elmo, and the Count on a regular basis. But Sesame Workshop, the show’s parent organization, is a non-profit with a mission: bringing literacy and education to kids everywhere.
While it may seem that Sesame Street is a purely English-speaking phenomenon, since its inception in 1966, the show has spread to countries as diverse as Mexico, Germany, Egypt--and India. Starting in 2005, the Indian version of Sesame Street, Galli Galli Sim Sim, has become a household name, even working with the Commonwealth Games to spread awareness of the importance of health and wellbeing by hosting a special episode with mascot Shera. Recently, I spoke with Shari Rosenfeld, International Vice President of Sesame Workshop.
First - just how broad is Sesame Workshop’s reach?
We have broadcast in about 140 countries around the world, and we have 25 local versions of Sesame Street. And what I mean by local is that we actually create an indigenous Sesame Street with characters that are unique to that particular culture and context.
Up until 5 years ago we had almost no Sesame Street presence in India because Sesame Street was not being broadcast at all. [But India is] the world’s second most populous country, [with] the greatest number of preschool children--I think the number under the age of 6 is a staggering 166 million. Between 2 and 6, which is how we define our target audience, [it’s] 128 million...if [that] were just a country of preschoolers it would be the fifth largest country in the world.
When did Galli Galli Sim Sim start? And how did Sesame Workshop bring it to India?
The program was started in 2005 as a co-production with Turner Entertainment Networks Asia... But we went into India with the idea of creating a Sesame Street program that would really help reach some of the most marginalized kids and it was clear that Pogo and Cartoon [Network], at least then, was not going to do that, although the media landscape has changed dramatically in India...in the last 5 years.
We weren’t going to reach all over the world but we were going to reach--at least have the ability to reach--any family that had television.
We felt as though, if there was a desire--because we don’t just come in and try to impose a local Sesame Street--we come in and assess their desire to understand the Sesame model of using television to educate... So we originally got a grant from USAID (the US Agency for International Development)... to do a feasibility study. And after about 1 year of really understanding the landscape, it was clear that there was a very strong desire to create a local version of Sesame Street to help address some of the kind of critical educational issues as well as diversity issues and to help also try to reach some of the more marginalized kids.
The project sounds pretty broad in scope--can you tell me a little more about that?
The project...is more than just television because we also are doing extensive educational outreach and we got a grant from the Michael & Susan Dell foundation to work in 6 of the major urban slum areas and we’ve developed an array of print materials--and video materials, adaptations of the television series--that are being used in urban slums and balwaadis (early childcare centers). [This is] basically the first time we set up a local organisation outside of the US in Delhi called Sesame Workshop India, that’s operating our community outreach activities.
How do you develop a local program and characters?
The way we begin is with what we call a curriculum seminar and we bring in educators together with people from the creative community...In india we had a 3 day seminar in which we identified what the critical needs [were] and how we can use a Sesame Street program to address those needs.
In different countries there are different focal points. There is an array of developmental issues with kids that you want to address around cognition whether it’s literacy or math skills, but [also] what’s needed in any particular country or culture--and India’s complicated because of the incredible diversity so it was very challenging--so we begin by identifying what those goals are. And then together with educators and people from the creative community, whether it’s writers and artists, people brainstorm what the characters might look like and what their attributes would be and so it’s a collaborative process between educators and artists. I don’t think there’s a feeling of saying “let’s create an Indian version of Big Bird”, it’s not like okay we’re going to create Boomba our big lion and he’s our Big Bird. I think the challenge and the task is to say what kind of characters do you want to create for yourself. And then people will often impose their own familiarity and say “oh, he’s a lot like” so and so because that’s what they know.
Why do you think Galli Galli Sim Sim is catching on so fast?
I think having characters and showing kids on screen that look like kids at home, so that kids see themselves on screen and recognize their own cultural icons, is very powerful for kids in this target age group and that’s what makes Sesame Street so popular around the world.
India...is a country of such contrasts, [with] an emerging economy, [and] access to education is the key to social and economic mobility. [We’re] giving kids early tools to kind of ...unlock and get excited about education...These are subtle, like having Chamki in a school uniform to model for girls to stay in school, and the importance of girls’ education. These are kinds of messaging that’s in the show in lots of different ways. I can’t answer it because I don’t think there’s a scientific answer to it but I think it’s a convergence of things.
Check back for part 2 of my interview with Shari, about language, music, and bringing Galli Galli Sim Simto the US.