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How 'Sesame Street' is still supporting families, 50 years after its debut


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: So, let's close out tonight with a little Muppet talk.

Next month marks the 50th anniversary of "Sesame Street"'s debut, now a landmark in children's television.

Beyond all of the fun and humor and songs, the show has been doing serious work to reach out to families in need. That's probably not widely known by many people.

Its latest effort, a new initiative with its well-known characters to help families deal with addiction, including alcoholism, drugs and opioids.

Hari Sreenivasan looks at that work and how it fits into the program's growing legacy.

It's part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Actor: Sally, you have never seen a street here like Sesame Street. Everything happens here. You're going to love it.

Hari Sreenivasan: Ever since Big Bird and his friends took their first steps onto their neighborhood full of Harlem brownstones and into public television households, the program's creators have always had a few goals in mind for its young audience.

It all seems as simple as A, B, C today. But back then, its secret sauce was unprecedented for children's television. It provided children with a mix of early childhood education, social and emotional learning, all with a sense of humor, music and hundreds of guest stars to keep parents engaged as well.

At the same time, the creators wove diversity into the show's DNA at a time when that wasn't common in TV. Over its more than 4,500 episodes, 35 TV specials, and the 1,000-plus fuzzy characters it introduced, the show's reach is enormous.

Tens of millions of adults and their children have watched in more than 150 countries. New episodes air first on HBO and then on PBS, and more than five million subscribe to its YouTube channel.

Sherrie Westin: We are experts on helping children -- child arrive at school ready to learn.

Hari Sreenivasan: Sherrie Westin is the president of global impact and philanthropy for Sesame Workshop, the company behind "Sesame Street."

Sherrie Westin: We have a 50-year history of reaching children in those critical early years, when you can make the most difference, and have them arrive at school ready to learn and ready to thrive.

Hari Sreenivasan: "Sesame Street" teaches those social and emotional skills in part by being inclusive and showcasing it.

Actor (singing): There's nothing else that can compare with my hair.

Hari Sreenivasan: It was the first children's show to prominently feature actors of color.

In 1971, it cast Sonia Manzano as Maria, in the first Latina leading role in TV history.

Actor: Do you, Maria, take Luis to be your husband?

Sonia Manzana: I do.

Hari Sreenivasan: That goal of inclusion and diversity has expanded over the past 15 years. Sesame Workshop's Communities Initiative now reaches specific audiences who are facing major challenges.

That can mean distinctive videos for children of parents who are incarcerated, or families with children who have special needs, or live in foster care, or are homeless. Sesame Workshop has done this internationally as well, creating early childhood programs for children of refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Bangladesh.

Though the Communities program has grown, there's still a big focus with one of the original targeted groups, military families.

Sherrie Westin: It started actually 13 years ago with our military family initiative, when we realized how many young children had parents who were being deployed, and often multiple deployments, and realized there were no tools for those parents and no resources for those young children to help understand it.

Hari Sreenivasan: Sesame creates videos, apps and books with messages aimed at these families about how to help them cope with the realities of their experiences.

They are available online to all, but they are crafted to show parents how they can talk to children about their challenges. Elmo and Rosita helped me understand.

Elmo, do you know a lot of kids that have military families?

Actor: Elmo's been really lucky, because Elmo has gotten to meet a lot of kids who have mommies and daddies in the military.

Actor: Yes.

Actor: And you know what? Elmo learned that military kids are actually a lot like Elmo, but sometimes they have to go through big changes, too.

Hari Sreenivasan: Fooshea and Felicia Miller were one of several sets of parents we caught up with at a special Sesame event for military families.

When Fooshea, a staff sergeant in the Army, is away, the family connects over video chat, but that's not always an option.

What's hard for you to communicate to them?

Fooshea Miller III: Well, when I'm out on deployments, the hardest for is basically, we -- sometimes, we don't have Internet service, or we're out on missions for days without being able to communicate back home.

Hari Sreenivasan: How do you deal with missing your kids?

Fooshea Miller III: For the most part, I try to block it out, which you can't.

Hari Sreenivasan: Abraham and Nicole Blocker face similar challenges, but because Abraham is a Marine Corps Reservist, they face even more difficulties connecting to a larger community.

Nicole Blocker: And so a lot of people where we live, I just have -- they don't know -- we're the only military people that they know. And so it's -- we don't have that community. Even though people are very eager to help, we don't have that.

Abraham Blocker: I think the challenge is just the sadness that comes with that and trying to turn it into a positive, to not to dwell on that, but to own it and know that something is sad, that daddy's going to be away, and he's really going to miss them.

Hari Sreenivasan: Parents told us the programs helped their children better understand what was happening and gave tools they used to reassure their kids.

Felicia Miller: So, we recently watched Elmo's dad gets deployed. And this one kind of understands, when daddy leaves and goes to work, he's helping other people.

Hari Sreenivasan: The military families initiative goes beyond deployment. It has expanded to include material about dealing with grief when a loved one doesn't come home, and caregiving for a loved one who comes home with injuries.

Sherrie Westin says the programs can be watched by all families to increase their empathy, but they are written to help kids and parents directly affected.

Actor: He's not here? Well, what do you mean?

Actor: You know how poppy has days when he feels OK?

Actor: Si.

Actor: He also has days where he doesn't feel like himself, and some of his days are a little rough and stormy.

Hari Sreenivasan: Westin says work like this is a natural outgrowth of what the show always did, like in 1982, when Big Bird and millions of children learned about the death of longtime character Mr. Hooper.

Actor: He's going to come back? Who's going to take care of the store and who is going to make my birdseed milkshakes and tell me stories?

Actor: Big Bird, I'm going to take care of the store. Mr. Hooper, he left it to me. And I will make you your milkshakes, and we will all tell you stories, and we will make sure you're OK.

Hari Sreenivasan: In the past couple of years, the show gained recognition for its introduction of a Muppet on the autism spectrum, Julia.

Actor: May I see your painting, Julia? Julia?

Actor: Sometimes, it takes Julia a while to answer. It helps to ask again.

Julia, can Big Bird see your painting?

Actor: See your painting? Yes.

Sherri Westin: And so I think Julia has been amazing, because, again, she's helping children with autism have a child they can relate to and feel less alone, but she's also teaching others why Julia may not look you in the eye.

Hari Sreenivasan: Some of that praise turned into tough criticism over the summer, when a different group, the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, broke off its work with "Sesame Street."

The group criticized an advertising campaign which it says promotes screening for autism. It says that stigmatizes and treats autistic people as burdens on their families.

For its part, the Sesame Workshop says the campaign was developed in close consultation with more than 250 organizations and experts across the autism community. It also says it will celebrate the uniqueness of every child, as well as what all children have in common.

More than any criticism, the show has weathered a big change in a fractured TV landscape, and, at one point, a financial deficit that led many to wonder whether it could stay afloat.

Sesame Workshop just signed a five-year deal with HBO for new episodes to air first on its upcoming streaming app. They will then be available for free here on PBS.

In the meantime, the hugs are free, too, for kids and parents, if you can get one.

For the "PBS NewsHour," this is Hari Sreenivasan, hanging out under sunny skies with a few furry friends on the friendliest block in New York.

Judy Woodruff: Love that show.

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