Oscar the Grouch and his worm in "Gone with the Worm"

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Unintended fans revealed: adults who love PBS kidvid

Originally published in Current, March 31, 1997

Commentary by Stephanie Briggs

Every now and then, when I tune into Sesame Street, I enter this time warp. It's 1969 and I'm rushing home from school to watch this new program with images of alphabets, numbers and brightly colored Muppets discussing the pains of sharing toys or making new friends.

These are like the fond memories of many kids today, except that when Sesame Street was new I was already 16 and living in fear that my friends would discover that I was a closeted fan of the Street. Watching the show, I struggled to maintain some level of teenage cool, though all I really wanted to do was raise my voice to the rafters, singing the theme song.

Yet times do change. Twenty-eight years later, I am a proud card-carrying member of an elite group of my peers who watch and discuss each episode of Wishbone and Kratt's Creatures.

You can find this phenomenon--mature viewers of children's television--in living rooms and dorm rooms throughout the country. It appears there are hundreds of thousands of college-age, Gen-Xers who are still hooked on Sesame Street. Some reportedly schedule their classes and study time around the show.

Fans can also be found chatting in an Internet discussion group about Sesame Street skits and Muppet character development. "Many of these subscribers are intensely loyal, dare I say, obsessed with the finer Muppet characteristics and song lyrics," according to Jo Holz, v.p. of research at Children's Television Workshop. "There are desperate pleas [on the Internet] for information about parts of shows when they can't remember the outcome."

Until CTW conducted a focus group of high school and college students to discuss their affinity for Sesame Street, there was no documentation on the adult fans. Holz said many participants in the focus group felt that the show represented a source of shared experiences, offering a sense of warmth and security among their peers. In retrospect, Holz sees the nostalgia for the show as a way of getting through some of the difficulties of growing up.

When CTW invented the Street, it aimed to cultivate viewing by adults who were parents of pre-schoolers. But the producers have accidentally acquired these older fans, including twentysomethings who were their original child viewers.

Producers of newer programs like Kratt's Creatures are surprised by the number of adult viewers they get. Unlike traditional nature shows that use a slow-paced, documentary style, Kratt's Creatures is fast and humorous. And it doesn't hurt to have two stars who are athletic, good-looking and smart.

The brothers know how to make scientific ideas understandable, memorable and fun. They can take a concept like "maximum cheetah velocity" and feed it to us with a humorous study in human inquisitiveness: So, is it possible for a person to move as fast as a cheetah? Not on foot or on a bicycle. But it is possible to achieve maximum cheetah velocity by catapult. Fortunately, Martin Kratt enlisted the fearless "Ken," a dummy, to test and prove this theory.

Twenty-eight years ago, the producers of Sesame Street deliberately added comedic quick takes, made popular by network shows like Laugh-In, to hook parents who were watching along with their toddlers. "They were cognizant of the fact that there was an adult-and-child audience," explained Alice Cahn, PBS's director of children's programming. "Even their merchandising was in adult sizes. The fact is, it was a smart show."

Their long-term, Gen-X viewers are now becoming a new generation of Sesame Street parents. CTW has launched a $1 million ad campaign targeting working and at-home mothers. The goal is to "brand and reinforce a strong identity for Sesame Street." These ads are scheduled to appear in prime-time viewing programming such as daytime syndicated programs, talk shows, daytime soap operas, cable networks and high-profile, primetime series--shows with heavy young audiences.

How big is this unintended audience for Sesame Street? Recent PBS audience statistics indicate that 13 percent of Street viewers are ages 18-34. Most are probably parents with little children. In the 18-24 subset, Holz estimates, there are 205,000 teens and 498,000 college students--a substantial number for a show designed for pre-schoolers.

Other children's shows also have teen and adult fans watching on their own, judging from letters and stories of young adults who attend personal appearances of their new-found stars. "College students writing papers call and want to talk to someone about an episode of Wishbone," observed Ann Piper, spokeswoman for Lyric Studios. She marvels at the increasing number of single adults attending Wishbone appearances. The overage audience may be attracted by the program's literary focus, or just because millions of adults will look at anything involving a cute dog.

Adults appreciate Kratts' Creatures for the same reason that kids do: "We don't talk down to kids," explained Chris Kratt. "We respect their intelligence ... which makes [the show] more accessible to adults."

Though the producers didn't have us in mind when they dreamed up their children's programs, some are now paying attention. The Kratts are considering making a special for adults. Hey, I think I like being discovered as part of this vast silent minority.


The writer, Stephanie Briggs, manages Current's classified advertising. She is the former director of education of the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C.


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