How Disney Got Our Money — But Sesame Street Got Our Childhoods
Lately, my 16 month-old is going through a phase. He won’t calm down and allow himself to be fed unless there is music playing. This music doesn’t have to be anything particularly child-geared: though Yo Gabba Gabba features prominently into the mix, he also seems to so far respond fairly positively to The Pogues and particularly jaunty Dave Brubeck numbers. But these days, the holidays, one likes to fill his son’s head with holiday-type music — a task which sent me recently into the iTunes store to see what specialized albums I might be able to find.
I settled on Merry Christmas from Sesame Street, originally released in 1975 as the show was building a success which would last for years and years to come and which, incidentally, was one of my personal favorite albums when I was a child probably only slightly older than my son. As the songs played for him for the first time, it dawned on me that somehow I still remembered all the words of the record. The album quickly became a holiday staple in our house, played at every breakfast, lunch and dinner. He loves it.
The odd phenomenon of loving the same exact novelty Christmas album as my one-and-a-half year-old has made me wonder, however, what it is about beloved childhood characters that creates a sense of something lasting. My son, for instance, laughed the moment he heard Cookie Monster’s voice — likely because he’s familiar with the blue creature as Cookie Monster is still, thirty-five years later, a staple of today’s Sesame Street. The same goes for Oscar, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and others. Even though these characters were featured on an album in 1975, in 2010 he knows each one of them. As I watched him laugh and smile (he can’t talk yet) at the album’s tracks, I realized I was at a rare moment wherein his childhood and my childhood overlapped. That doesn’t happen a lot (if ever, since times and technologies have changed so drastically since 1975).
Oddly enough, just as an experiment, I also played an album for him based on the Disney Channel’s Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. The result was different — he didn’t seem to recognize the voices of Mickey, Donald, Goofy and the Disney gang in the same distinct way he responded to Sesame Street’s bunch.
Both collections of characters are long-standing icons of childhood. And the Disney Channel does still in some ways hang its hat on Mickey and Minnie Mouse, especially at its fantastic collection of parks. But Sesame Street was king with my son; while he enjoyed Disney’s characters, there doesn’t seem to be a tremendous amount of “brand stock” in those characters — they’re like talking logos.
How did this happen? It’s simple; while Disney was building its empire on a cast of ever-rotating characters for children, Sesame Street spent its time growing its staid characters for forty years. Case in point: poll four people of differing ages (let’s say, from fifty years old to five) about their favorite Disney characters and you might turn up a varying series of responses from Mickey Mouse to Herbie the Love Bug to Aladdin to Buzz Lightyear. Herbie will mean nothing to the five year-old, and Buzz Lightyear may not mean anything to the fifty year-old. But ask both the fifty year-old and the five year-old to name who lives on Sesame Street, and you’ll likely get a similar crossover on answers (barring, maybe, Elmo or Zoe, some of the newer characters).
Jim Henson and the Children’s Television Workshop did it right the first time — they stuck with a series of characters and put all their stock into those characters with the foresight that if children in 1973 love Big Bird, the children of 2010 will too. They’ve been right, and that’s why The Count, Snuffle-Upagus, even live action human characters like Maria and Gordon still live among children’s television’s most famous brownstones. Disney made billions of dollars by following the marketing advice, and there’s nothing wrong with that. An chronological look at Disney through the ages includes the Mickey Mouse Club, the Shaggy Dog, the advent of the Disney Channel, the Lion King, computer-generated films like Cars and The Incredibles, and 3-D like Alice in Wonderland. It’s worked from a profit perspective; the company has made a fortune we couldn’t even begin to imagine.
But the same chronological look at Sesame Street and the Children’s Television Workshop looks startlingly similar in its fifteen-year incremenets. Oscar still lives in a garbage can. Bert is still obsessed with pigeons. Grover is still SuperGrover. And on and on. While Disney traded its consistency of brand to update with the times and — let’s not be down on Disney — deliver phenomenal children’s programming and films over the last many years, the Children’s Television Workshop over at trusty ol’ PBS stuck with its same team. The result? My son and I both, when each of us are age one-and-a-half, will find Cookie Monster funny. Sesame Street’s meager empire is just as golden and powerful as the Disney Corporation’s — only while Disney did it with ticket sales, Sesame Street did it by keeping its family together. It may well be one of the most impressive victories of branding and marketing in entertainment history, little urban New York versus the gold-plated roads of the Magic Kingdom, but in the end I’d posit that Sesame Street has created a legacy every bit as lasting as Disney’s. That’s why my son and I both know the same Sesame Street Christmas album — it’s not me forcing characters from my own youth onto him, it’s him enjoying the characters he already enjoys in his own youth. As Grover himself might say, “being cute, furry and self-confident is all you need.”