Sesame Workshop President & CEO Talks about Competing in a Global Marketplace
When Sesame Street debuted in 1969, its only competition for preschool viewers came from an affable man in a cardigan sweater and sneakers. For twenty years, Big Bird and Mr. Rogers divided the preschool world between them.
Today, there are at least 50 shows, plus the Internet, DVDs, and video games aimed at that demographic. Stasis in an environment such as this, especially for a non-profit, equals disaster. In order to succeed, even thrive, Sesame Street Workshop had to become a nimble, far-reaching empire, able to expand its brand worldwide, while keeping true to its mission to educate children.
“The challenge for us in running this organization is how do we take our mission and identity into this competitive environment that is very different than when Sesame Street was born,” said Gary Knell, the president and CEO of Sesame Street Workshop. Knell delivered the Gordon Grand Lecture at SOM on April 5. “We wouldn’t be anywhere without the furry red menace,” he added, joking.
The “menace” is Elmo, the wildly-popular Muppet who in retail form has repeatedly been the year’s most popular toy. But Elmo is just one facet of an enterprise that spans nearly all sectors of media, from TV shows to DVDs to book titles to toys, and can now be found in 120 countries. As a company, Sesame Street Workshop has proven as entrepreneurial as Nickelodeon or Disney. But as a nonprofit, Knell said it measures itself by different standards.
Knell played a five-minute video at the beginning of the lecture, describing the breadth and mission of the company. When it premiered a South African version of Sesame Street, called Takalani Sesame, the producers included an HIV-positive Muppett. The point was to help destigmatize the disease in a country where one in nine people are infected. Another Muppett said to the HIV-positive girl: “We know we cannot catch HIV just by being your friend.”
In Kosovo, the show teaches Serb and Albanian children not to hate each other. In Israel, the Burt and Ernie-type characters are Jewish and Muslim. In India, one of the most prominent characters is a bookish little girl, an anomaly in a country where many girls drop out of school after the second grade. In each country, the show is tailored to the needs and desires of the people.
“I truly believe we can make the world a better place,” Knell said.
View Gary Knell's talk online: