Oscar the Grouch as a great innovator? Well, not exactly, but apparently Sesame Street, the venerable children’s television show now in its 45th year, has taken a pro-active view of innovation for a long time. Give the show’s longevity, perhaps there are lessons for other companies from the experience of the Muppets and their colleagues.
By setting it in a urban neighborhood population by people (and monsters) of all colors, it promoted inclusivity. It taught about numbers and letters and math through a series of ‘commercials’ meant to entertain and educate (I personally remember wishing they would just get back to Cookie Monster and friends, but maybe I did learn something from them). Over time, the show also took some daring steps by dealing with problems that span the range from being bullied to having a parent in jail.
Behind the scenes, however, Sesame Street has been just as innovative. According to this piece from Fast Company, the Children’s Television Workshop (which produces Sesame Street) has a wing called the ‘innovation Lab’ which basically scans the market for new technology and figures out how it can be used to teach kids. The Sesame Street staff frequently form partnerships with tech developers in the early days of products so that they can help refine the products to their own best interests. Example: voice technology, which is now being adapted to be more user-friendly to kids.
I would credit Sesame Street and its creators with another bold step, which was early on realizing the value of branding and marketing. This is a controversial view, I realize (and I do not want to venture into a discussion about anyone’s trauma about not getting a Tickle Me Elmo doll during the craze) but the net result is that Sesame Street has garnered a huge amount of money through its products and productions. In turn, that has given it a freedom to expand in a way that would not have been possible had it stayed strictly under the auspices of public television.
The Sesame Street experience shows that it even when you are dealing with something as simple as teaching a child the ABCs, there is a role for thinking outside the box and for embracing the best that technology has to offer. That technology could be a an app that makes learning fun – or it could be a Muppet named Oscar.