The Birth of Big Bird

This excerpt is taken from the chapter of The Tipping Point on the children’s shows Sesame Street and Blues Clues. As I explain in Chapter Three, both of those shows, started epidemics of learning among pre-schoolers by creating “sticky” programming–programming engineered in such a way that children were able to remember and understand what they saw on the screen. This particular passage is about a machine called the Distracter, which was developed in the Sesame Street pioneer Edward Palmer to test whether pre-schoolers were paying attention to what they were seeing.

The most important thing that Palmer ever found out with the Distracter, though, came at the very beginning, before Sesame Street was even on the air. “It was the summer of 1969 and we were month and a half from air date,” Gerald Lesser, a psychologist at Harvard University who was one of the show’s founders, remembers. “We decided, let’s go for broke. Let’s produce five full shows-one hour each-before we go to air and we’ll see what we got.” To test the shows, Palmer took them to Philadelphia, and over the third week of July showed them to groups of preschoolers in sixty different homes throughout the city. It was a difficult period. Philadelphia was in the midst of a heat wave, which made the children who were supposed to watch the show restless and inattentive. In the same week, as well, Apollo 11 landed on the moon, and some children–understandably–seemed to prefer that historic moment to Sesame Street. Worst of all were the conclusions from Palmer’s distracter. “What we found,” Lesser says, “almost destroyed us.”

The problem was that when the show was originally conceived the decision was made that all fantasy elements of the show be separated from the real elements. This was done at the insistence of many child psychologists, who felt that to mix fantasy and reality would be misleading to children. The Muppets, then, were only seen with other Muppets, and the scenes filmed on Sesame Street itself involved only real adults and children. What Palmer found out in Philadelphia, though, was that as soon as they switched to the street scenes, the kids lost all interest. “The street was supposed to be the glue,” Lesser said. “We would always come back to the street. It pulled the show together. But it was just adults doing things and talking about stuff and the kids weren’t interested. We were getting incredibly low attention levels. The kids were leaving the show. Levels would pop back up if the Muppets came back, but we couldn’t afford to keep losing them like that.” Lesser calls Palmer’s results a “turning point in the history of Sesame Street. We knew that if we kept the street that way, the show was going to die. Everything was happening so fast. We had the testing in the summer, and we were going on the air in the fall. We had to figure out what to do.”

Lesser decided to defy the opinion of his scientific advisers. “We decided to write a letter to all the other developmental psychologists and say, we know how you guys think about mixing fantasy and reality. But we’re going to do it anyway. If we don’t, we’ll be dead in the water.” So the producers went back and re-shot all of the street scenes. Jim Henson and his coworkers created puppets who could walk and talk with the adults of the show and could live along side them on the street. “That’s when Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch and Snuffalupagos were born,” said Palmer. What we now think of as the essence of Sesame Street–the artful blend of fluffy monsters and earnest adults–grew out of a desperate desire to be sticky.