Past decades in America have seen shifts in social norms and individuals’ rights, new fashions come and gone, political movements and technological revolutions, but one thing remained constant – "Sesame Street" and its core cast of human and muppet characters.
The iconic children’s program weathered America’s shifting tastes for decades, and the one-hour show continued to take viewers to 123 Sesame Street, a fictional address in New York City where humans and Muppets coexist and have blended education with entertainment since 1969. Yet amid a whirl of changes to adapt to 21st century entertainment, the show's makers have now confirmed what is, for many fans, one of the most hard-hitting: saying goodbye to three veteran actors.
Last year’s decision by creative producers at Sesame Workshop to shift from PBS to the premium cable station HBO was a financial opportunity that brought with it a host of small changes: a shortened show, a jazzed up theme song, and a revised set. (After a nine month window, new episodes will be aired on PBS.) But perhaps the biggest shake-up to the show was officially announced Thursday, when Sesame Workshop said that three human members of the "Sesame Street" clan, in the cast for decades, would no longer appear on the show: actors Bob McGrath, Emilio Delgado, and Roscoe Orman, who played Bob the music teacher, Luis the “Mr. Fix-It," and Gordon the science teacher, respectively.
In a statement on Twitter, Sesame Workshop cast the change amid a long history of “constantly evolving” content and curriculum during the show’s nearly fifty years on the air.
The news created dismay among long-time viewers, who voiced frustrations on social media. One user tweeted: “Dear @HBO: Sesame Street is not Sesame Street without Bob, Gordon, and Luis. Firing them is like firing Dr. Seuss & Pooh. Reconsider.”
In its statement, Sesame Workshop reiterated an original promise of its deal with HBO: that Sesame Workshop “retains sole creative control over the show” and “HBO does not oversee the production.”
But Mr. McGrath, aka Bob the music teacher, who has been with the show since its first season on the air, told a Florida Supercon audience on July 2 that the changes, including the shortened air time, are about appealing to an audience of children who’ve grown up in the era of smartphones and tablets and electronic toys.
“I have completed my 45th season this year. And the show has gone under a major turnaround, going from an hour to a half-hour. HBO has gotten involved also,” he said.
There is no mistaking that the show, under HBO, has been working to transition into a digital age and create a show that interfaces better with different platforms. (Not so different from the challenges facing HBO itself.) In recent months, "Sesame Street" has added a second YouTube station – "Sesame Studios," a Muppet-free channel. They've also launched a six-month “Love to Learn” campaign. Instead of exploring Elmo’s World, the characters in the campaign will navigate digital pop culture, hanging out with the likes of Simon’s Cat, an animated YouTube star, and Jérôme Jarre, the Snapchat and Vine sensation.
"Sesame Street" is also making itself flexible across platforms. The show has a partnership with PlayKids apps and has collaborated with another maker of tablet smart toys for kids, Tiggly, to create an interactive, educational app hosted by Cookie Monster. The show, which now airs in dozens of countries, has added three more to the list – Taiwan, the Philippines, and Thailand – and also began streaming on three of China’s top digital platforms: Baidu’s iQIYI, Tencent Video, and Alibaba’s Tmall Box last fall.
Some of the changes to the show, like the shortened length and a plot simplification that reduces the number of storylines and characters, also cater to the shorter attention spans of today’s kids and the fierce competition for viewers.
"Our competition is primarily led with shows hosted by a singular character. There may be other characters or friends, but it's their show," Sesame executive Carol-Lynn Parente told Reuters six months ago. "We have this ensemble cast."
Ms. Parente said research showed that the show needed more interwoven or fewer plot lines for the modern child.
Whether or not there is a direct link between these shifts and the decision to let three decades-long members go is unclear.
McGrath, however, implies that age – and digitalization – are a key motivation for the producers. “They let all of the original cast members go, with the exception of Alan Muraoka — who is probably 20 years younger than the rest of us — and Chris Knowings, who is also young,” McGrath, who is 84, said in audio posted by The MuppetCast Podcast.
Back in January, another member of the Sesame family offered his thoughts on the new developments already shaking up the show then. "It's always difficult when you go through changes," said Elmo from the set steps of 123 Sesame Street, talking to staffers from Yahoo. "But the good thing about changes is they bring up new things you haven't done before."