Ed Wells, International Head of Media and Education at Sesame Workshop, speaks to Toy & Hobby Retailer about the importance of short-form content, inclusion and diversity and community outreach in keeping the Sesame Street brand top-of-mind.
How do you keep an internationally recognised brand thriving?
It is an incredibly exciting time to be at Sesame, I joined about eight/nine months ago and the momentum and the energy around Sesame Workshop and the Sesame Street brand and what we're doing is really incredible. I think you must know that we're going in to our 50th year next year – we will make our 50th anniversary a full year celebration – and as part of that we continue to be innovating and to your point keeping the product relevant and top of mind and keep delivering those lessons that we've been delivering to kids since we debuted in 1969.
First of all, we continue to develop new content. So the flagship program itself, Sesame Street, you know is a 30 minute program and we continue to introduce new segments featuring our pool of characters. Season 49 will debut in the US this fall, season 48 will debut in Australia next [this] week and we're really excited about that. So it'll be the 48th year of our relationship with ABC Kids which we're really thrilled about.
We had in season 47 a completely re-imagined Elmo's World segment that we introduced – which is one of our most popular segments and Elmo is one of our most popular and beloved characters. Then in season 48, [we] introduced a new dedicated segment for Cookie Monster, called Cookie's Foodie Truck which is incredibly relevant, for the time that we live in. I think everyone – including here in Australia – you have a foodie truck culture and its become so prominent and really a part of kid's lives as well. The segment is so fantastic it features Cookie Monster and his pal going around and finding out where food comes from and teaching kids where food comes from and how to make some of their favourite snacks. So it's got great educational opportunity and educational elements in it but is also just a lot of fun. Cookie Monster's friend Gonger is hilarious, it's a really really funny segment. So it's great to see both Elmo and Cookie having their own segments and as we go in to season 49, we're really thrilled to be introducing a new animated segment for Abby Cadabby.
So now our three core characters – most beloved characters, Elmo, Cookie Monster and Abby Cadabby – all have their own dedicated segments in the show which I think is fantastic. I really think it's exciting for what we do with licensing and merchandising.
How has social media helped, hindered or changed the way that Sesame Street operates?
We all recognise that we all live in a totally different media world than we lived in five, 10, 20 years ago. It's changing rapidly and we need to adjust our approach to reaching and engaging with kids and parents, so social media's critical to that. So is on-demand viewing of the long-form content and so we are really dedicated in that space and we are going to be investing in more short-form, digital-first content. In the coming year we'll be looking at how we create more short-form content that is made for those digital platforms, where kids and adults are going to watch shorter clips but they want a lot of them. We want to make sure we're doing things in a way that we're putting the content wherever our fans are, wherever our viewers are.
Our entire business is built around the premise that if you can engage with kids and get them to watch the content, you can teach them. So we have to be able to engage with them in the way that they engage with content now and that's changing rapidly. TV is still fundamental to what we do – linear television – and we continue to enjoy those relationships. But we have to supplement that with opportunities in the digital and social space. We'll be investing to create more short-form content that is a way for kids and parents to continually discover our characters and the lessons that we bring and it's a feeder to the longer form content.
When you say social I think about it in two parts; I think of digital as in things like: YouTube Kids and we have a channel on YouTube called Sesame Studios, so there's the on-demand digital platforms and there's the straight forward social media platforms and we actively develop content for both of those. We have a really robust social media following and it's already a really impressive number and we do lots of fun things in that space. We're known for parodies that we create on famous programs so last year we were able to work with the creators of Stranger Things and create a parody called Sharing Things with Oscar Grouch and it was a really fun parody and it ended up being hugely successful for us in terms of the engagement that we got. And those are nice ways where we stay relevant in pop-culture and also bring different types of content to the experience.
How has Sesame Street developed, changed and progressed since its inception?
I think our mission is to help kids everywhere grow smarter, stronger and kinder, and that mission remains true. Everything that we do starts with education, it starts with the curriculum that we've built. Sesame has always been about inclusion, it's always been about diversity. We've always had an approach that we call the 'Whole Child Curriculum' which teaches not just the cognitive functions, but also executive functions.
Diversity and inclusion is a major initiative that we have, we do specific programs not just in Sesame Street the show, but also have programs that we create outside in communities, we have something called Sesame Street in Communities, which has a range of different media and curriculum that we create to help kids around the US and around the world, that are specific to issues that kids are facing today. We have programs that help in the US in an area that is becoming more challenging – we have a lot of children that are faced with incarcerated parents – and we've built a program specifically around that. We have an autistic puppet Julia, who debuted last year, and we've built a curriculum around autism awareness and diversity and inclusion around that.
At the core, we just continue to say that we always understand what is happening in kids' lives today, what are the topics and issues that they're facing and then we work from there to create – the only way we can – an educational but entertaining experience that allows kids to learn through play and learn through media.
This interview is part one of Toy & Hobby Retailer's conversation with Ed Wells. Part two will be available next week.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.