WHEN ``Sesame Street'' hit the airwaves in 1969 with an all-new approach to children's TV - music, puppets, animals, and animation packaged with advertising-slick pacing and aimed at pre-school literacy - it was an instantaneous hit. Twenty years later, beginning its third decade this Monday (Nov. 13), it is regarded by some as the most popular instrument for conveying American culture to the young.
A symposium of independent researchers revealed a number of findings this past weekend at Princeton University. One of the most compelling: A whopping 65 percent of a 25-city sampling of mothers from every racial background said their child had seen ``Sesame Street'' either the same day or the day before. Asked how to improve the show, an overwhelming majority said, ``Keep it the way it is.''
One reason for such reactions may be that, since ``Sesame Street'''s debut, children's programming on commercial TV has dropped from an average of 11.3 to 4.4 hours per week, leaving the after-school network time slots without a regularly scheduled children's series.
``You've got to remember that the economic environment that allowed `Sesame Street' to flower and prosper does not exist today,'' says Ed Palmer, professor of psychology at the University of Davidson in North Carolina and author of a book on children's television. ``The kind of money and lead time that they had to get going is impossible to rival in today's climate.''
For one thing, ``Sesame Street'' is undeniably the most thoroughly researched show in TV history, striving to fuse the science of learning with the art of communication. With its huge success has come criticism - that the show outshines the school teacher, that its fast clip tends to shorten attention spans, that it promotes passivity, and that it benefits the middle-class more than the poor. Some have also complained about the commercial products - from stuffed animals to magazines, books, videotapes, and computer programs - that use ``Sesame Street'' characters and whose royalties supply three-fourths of the show's budget.
But as 11 million-plus children and adults tune in to see Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Bert and Ernie wax amusing about numbers, colors, shapes, and more, evidence continues to pile up that the show is hitting the mark.
``For the past decade, `Sesame Street' has been a beaming lighthouse in the darkness of children's television,'' says Brian Stonehill, a professor of English at Pomona College who studies visual literacy. ``It continues just as innovative and exciting as ever.''
```Sesame Street' has been a unique and very special endeavor from the beginning,'' adds Professor Palmer. ``By developing their curricula with hosts of educators, conceiving creative ways to translate it to the screen, and testing their ideas every step of the way, they have not only lived up to their early promise; they have surpassed it in a number of ways.''
Recent reseach establishing the breadth of the use of ``Sesame Street'' ``is very gratifying,'' says Dr. Keith Mielke, the program's vice president for research, ``because from the very beginning our aim was to penetrate the urban ghetto and raise the literacy of those in poverty.'' A full-time staff of five tests each episode by polling educators and filming children while they watch to examine which techniques hold interest. They also test children for retention of ideas. Dr. Mielke says a seven-year study has just been lauched to look at the long-term effects of learning skills gained by ``Sesame Street'' families as opposed to similar skills in families that don't watch.
Talking about new areas of emphasis, Dr. Valeria Lovelace, director of research for the program, says, ``Everything points to the fact that kids are not as knowledgeable about the states and countries they live in, but that they are ready and able to grasp photographs, pictures, models, and maps. We're going to show them that, when you stand in different places, things look different. And they are going to learn the interrelationships of things in nature - grass to cow, water to fish and plants. We'll also hit on such ideas as water and energy conservation, recycling, and longterm effects of environmental abuse.''
New this season will be an emphasis on geography and ecology, 3-D graphics, and computer animation.
``The spirit of the show is the same, but we've had to grow and become more complex as society has emphasized different needs,'' adds Dulcy Singer, the show's executive producer since the beginning.
She says that means ``Sesame Street'' will continue to grow from its initial emphasis on pure learning skills - reading, writing, and arithmetic - to ``affective'' skills: dealing with such issues as pregnancy, death, inner feelings. Recent shows, for example, have dealt with the death of one long-time character, Mr. Hooper, the marriage of the show's Hispanic couple, Luis and Maria, and the arrival of their baby.
Over the years, ``Sesame Street'' has garnered praise for its growing awareness of the multi-ethnic makeup of its audiences, reflected on screen. Recent years have seen the addition of Spanish-language material as well as material aimed at Asian cultures.
``The neglected angle on `Sesame Street' is how effective it is in socializing kids to a multi-ethnic society,'' says Professor Stonehill. The show ``is not just about numbers and letters but about getting along with people whose skin is different from yours or that speak a different language from yours.''
``Sesame Street'''s concern with such attitudes has won the show an international following. Ten years after its first show, it was seen in 50 countries in English and in seven foreign-language editions, including Arabic. It is now telecast in English in 80 countries as well as in 14 other languages.
``Children's Television Workshop [producer of ``Sesame Street''] has been very sensitive to the cultural appropriateness of content in its receiving countries, quieting the criticism of media imperialism that have plagued other such attempts,'' says Karen Dajani, an associate professor of communication at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, who has worked with media teaching aids at the American University of Cairo. ``They realized, for instance that a character like Miss Piggy wouldn't make it because of the religious restrictions about pork.''
If praise for ``Sesame Street'' seems nearly universal, there are many who complain that the show is not perfect, even when they focus on its strengths.
``I'd like to see `Sesame Street' go a step further than just accurately reflecting the world of its audience,'' says Dr. Leola Johnson, an assistant professor of communications at Pennsylvania State University. Far too many of the puppets are male, she says, and the women on the show fit into stereotypical roles of mothers who don't work, secretaries, nurses. ``I'd like to see them provide some role models for women.''
Whatever the criticisms, the audience has remained steady over the years, according to Singer. The 130 hour-long programs this year will attract 11 million viewers weekly.