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Sesame Street to tackle divorce, for real this time

Discussion in 'Sesame Street' started by Oscarfan, Dec 10, 2012.

  1. Oscarfan

    Oscarfan Well-Known Member

    The full resource video's coming out tomorrow.

    And here's an article about it.

    ‘D’ Is for Divorce: Big Feelings on Sesame Street

    In early 1992, a census report predicted that 40 percent of children would soon live in divorced homes. As one of the most famous children’s television programs in the world, Sesame Street was determined to take on a topic most kid’s shows wouldn’t touch. They cast Snuffy, a.k.a. Mr. Snuffleupagus, for the part of child divorcee.

    With a team of its best writers, researchers, and producers, a segment was scripted and shot. It went through a half-dozen revisions, with input from the foremost researchers in the field. And on a typical sunny afternoon on Sesame Street, the furry, red, elephantine muppet known as Snuffy prepared to drop the bomb on his loyal preschool viewers.

    “My dad is moving out of our cave,” he confides to Big Bird one afternoon, distraught after knocking over a house built of blocks. “I’m not sure where,” he continues, crying. “Some cave across town.”

    Big Bird, naturally, is horrified. “But why?” he asks his friend.

    Snuffy blinks his long, dark eyelashes, and pauses. We know what’s coming. Well, he explains, “because of something called a divorce.”

    You can pretty much guess where it goes from there: Gordon explains why divorces happen. Viewers learn that sometimes divorce can be “for the best.” We are assured that Snuffy and his sister Alice will always be loved. And yet when Sesame Street tested the segment on preschoolers, just weeks before it was scheduled to air, it was nothing short of a disaster. The children didn’t know where Snuffy was going to live. They didn’t think his parents loved him. Some worried their own parents might get a divorce. They cried.
    “It was really the first time we’d produced something, put all this money into it, tested it, and it just didn’t work,” says Susan Scheiner, a longtime Sesame researcher, who worked on the segment. “We thought we had it. We thought this was really revolutionary, and then it was just bad.”

    Sesame Street killed the show, and for the two decades since, producers have avoided the D-word on air — until now.

    For the past two years, a concentrated team of researchers, writers, and producers in the outreach department of Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit that operates Sesame Street) have been working on a new version of that segment, replacing Snuffy with the sparkly pink fairy known as Abby Cadabby (whose parents, we learn, have been divorced for some time). On Tuesday, the Workshop will debut the 13-minute segment online — part of a massive multimedia kit called “Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce” that includes a storybook (“Two Hug Day”), a guide for parents, and an app, funded as part of a larger initiative geared toward military families. The segment itself won’t air on TV — it’s among Sesame’s “targeted” programming aimed at specific populations — but it will tackle divorce directly, in a way producers hope is accessible, understandable, and, well, not quite so scary.
    “We want kids to understand that they’re not alone, and that it’s not their fault,” says Lynn Chwatsky, Sesame’s vice president for outreach, who oversaw the project. “These kids love and adore Abby. So to know that she’s going through something similar to them, something challenging, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It makes it OK to have a whole range of feelings.”

    “Big feelings” is a theme of the video segment, which features Abby, the happy-go-lucky fairy-in-training, at its center. Viewers know little about Abby’s parents up until now, so when she and some friends decide to draw pictures of their homes, Elmo and Rosita are surprised to learn that Abby has not one, but two houses. “This one is where I live with my mommy,” Abby proclaims confidently, holding up her crayon drawing, “and this one is where I live with my daddy.”

    The reason? Well, you know the reason. “Divorce means that Abby’s mommy and daddy aren’t married anymore,” Gordon explains.

    It’s sweet, and certainly better late than never. Because, while the statistics may be dire — more than a million children have parents who divorce or separate each year; many of those breakups happen in the preschool years — researchers say that resources intended for preschool-aged children are still shockingly scarce. No, children of divorce won’t necessarily be more screwed up than their non-divorced peers, but they can be — if they don’t get the right support from the adults around them. So information for parents and children alike is key.

    “I think the biggest challenge for parents is that they are overwhelmed themselves,” says Robert Hughes, a professor of human development and family studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne, and one of four independent consultants who advised on the project. “So it’s managing their own emotions, and then figuring out how to deal with their children’s emotions. That’s where Sesame Street comes in — it gives you a tool.”
    Most viewers may not know it, but Sesame Street was the first show to use empirical research as part of its programming. Now in its 44th season, what that level of research means is that producing shows for Sesame Street can take months, if not years — involving dozens of experts, researchers, and psychologists, as well as impeccably-sourced advisory teams who are asked to serve as critics. Big Bird as political pawn and Elmo sex scandal aside, it’s a model that’s allowed the show to tackle subjects that, as 30-year-Sesame Street veteran Lewis Bernstein puts it, “sometimes you’d think you wouldn’t want to touch with a ten-foot pole”: race, adoption, love, pregnancy, incarceration — even death. When, in the early 1980s, the longtime cast member (Will Lee) who played Mr. Hooper died suddenly, Sesame Street faced up to the change — explaining that Mr. Hooper wouldn’t be returning to the show (or his store). “If we left it unsaid,” the executive producer reasoned at the time, “kids would notice.”

    Last month, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, the show re-aired an episode in which Big Bird’s nest is devastated by a storm. “A lot of people want to shield kids from the tougher issues,” says Chrissy Ferraro, a writer on the show. “My feeling is, the more information the kid has, the better.”

    And divorce? Sure, it will probably alarm some parents to see muppets talking about such an emotional minefield. Studies on the benefits of Sesame Street could fill a bookshelf, and yet the show has always faced criticism, over everything from Cookie Monster’s pipe smoking (ah, the early days) to Oscar the Grouch’s mood swings (yes) to Abby herself, who — when she became the first female muppet to join the show in a decade, in 2006 — some believed was too “pink.”

    But these days, divorce is simply a reality — “a fact of American life,” as one dad involved in the project put it — and continuing to ignore it would be a conspicuous omission. And so, two decades post-Snuffy debacle, the outreach team eagerly took a second crack at the topic. Admittedly, it wasn’t simple. Researchers wondered which muppet had the best personality for the role, and what kind of vocabulary would be best to get the message across. While the goals were simple — help kids understand that divorce is never their fault, that mom and dad will still love them — accomplishing them was another story. “TV can be a very impressive teacher — if it’s done correctly,” says Dorothy Singer, the cofounder, with her husband, of the Family Television Research Center at Yale. Of course, there’s lots to it: “Pacing is important, repetition is important, the clarification of ideas is important.”
    First, of course, there was the character to think about. Had Snuffy’s demeanor made him a more somber force? He’s got those big eyes, that deep voice, those long, weepy eyelashes. Would a pink, bubbly fairy be a better match for such a serious topic?

    Then there was the crucial distinction of timing: Snuffy had experienced his divorce in the present; he was upset, angry, crying. His emotions were raw. But Abby would reveal her story as something that happened in the past — an important distinction, say researchers, to show kids that she’s made it to the other side.

    But perhaps the most critical difference had to do with audience: targeting only the kids who are experiencing a divorce, or whose parents wanted to make the point of downloading the content. In other words, there would be no divorce segment catapulting into your living room unannounced. Sesame Street almost made that mistake before. But then, in 1992, there was no alternative online method for targeted or voluntary delivery of the segment, as opposed to broadcast.

    The initiative will be available this week, and yet in testing programs this past March, kids seemed to get it. Huddled into conference rooms at Sesame Street’s midtown New York headquarters, preschoolers were broken into small groups, accompanied by a parent who’d viewed the DVD already. Each parent in the room was either divorced or separated.
    This time, there was no crying. The kids knew exactly where Abby lived. They smiled. As Gordon and Abby sign off with a duet — repeating, again and again, “They live in different places but they both love me” — kids hummed along.

    “It’s not her fault,” one 7-year-old offered.

    “It made me feel happy, because Abby told Gordon a lot of her mixed feelings,” said another.
    It’s wasn’t magic, exactly — but it felt like it had the blessing of a certain pink fairy.

    ”This isn’t an easy topic, but that’s the beauty of muppets,” says Chwatsky. “They can do things that even some grownups can’t.”
    Plaid Fraggle likes this.
  2. Slackbot

    Slackbot Well-Known Member

    This sounds like a better approach. I think they can pull it off this time.
  3. dwayne1115

    dwayne1115 Well-Known Member

    Yes! Yes! They are finally giving Abby a serious role. I'm so glad that they are going to be dealing with such a huge issue for kids. I know it was very confusing, and a difficult time for me when my parents separated, so I can't wait to see how this is handled.
  4. Drtooth

    Drtooth Well-Known Member

    This is the story they should have done. Not the intense version where it's going on right at the moment like they had with Snuffy. This approached worked wonders for Arthur, having Buster's parents divorced to begin with. After a while, they brought the character of Buster's Dad on, unfortunately through a show that was canceled for very unfortunate reasons.

    Too bad it's not part of the show. Though, knowing SW, it just might be after it's a resource video.
  5. D'Snowth

    D'Snowth Well-Known Member

    This should be most interesting... though, for some reason, I feel that using Abby might be a bit of a cop out, I don't know why.

    But still, it would be interesting how this will play out.

    I wonder if they'll also try to tackle nightmares again; I know Caroll once said that another show they had to scrap was Ernie having a nightmare about monsters, because apparently, that episode was "too scary" for the kids who served as the test audience.
  6. Oscarfan

    Oscarfan Well-Known Member

    The "episode" was actually the orignal version of "Imagination", which they scrapped because they had real monsters at the begging frightening Ernie. I'm pretty sure that it was the monsters on this:


    ...because they're pretty scary looking and they're against a black background, which they'd use for the chromakeying of the segment.

    Man. I need a life.
  7. cjd874

    cjd874 Well-Known Member

    In the early days, Snuffy did seem to be more of a melancholy character, and I think he might have been coming out of that phase when the divorce filmings began. As much as I dislike Abby, I think she is the perfect choice for this segment.

    Also, there's an article about that KIDS magazine on Tough Pigs. Don't you wish you could have been one of those kids reporters who got to watch Jim, Frank, Richard, Jerry perform some freaky-looking Monsters? :sigh: if only...

  8. mr3urious

    mr3urious Well-Known Member

    This seems promising, not only for having Abby's parents already divorced, but for giving her more of an opportunity to emote and be treated as a character like how Elmo should be.
  9. D'Snowth

    D'Snowth Well-Known Member

    I thought you got one of those recently. :shifty:
  10. Oscarfan

    Oscarfan Well-Known Member

    Ah yes, that's where I saw the rest of the article. And the BTS shots of E&B in their bedroom help support my theory.

    Well....*window jump out of-ing*
  11. Drtooth

    Drtooth Well-Known Member

    It's not that strange at all. You constantly hear Abby speak of her mother. Who's the one she calls when she's in a jam and her spells screw up? Her mommy. That's why she has a cell phone/wand. So they can keep in constant contact with each other. There seems to be that added feeling of character over-interpretation that her mother really manages to look out for her, while Abby remains just a little clingy. Meanwhile, her father is never mentioned. Ever. Not even in any kid's books I know. Sesame Street kid's books, where Sesame Street continuity went to die, and every character has parents that are completely inconsistent. Like we're supposed to believe after years of seeing Grover's (has to be) 50 year old frumpish mom, she's all young and hip all the sudden.

    So logically, this seems to be something to easily retcon, and the best way to do that is to pick out someone who's father isn't already established (imagine how heart breaking it would be if it happened to Elmo or Baby Bear), and a character that's more or less well adjusted (Telly would have very unfortunate implications, given his overemotional highs and lows). Plus, at the approach they're taking, they want a character that's well established enough for kids to care, listen and sympathize. That would be Abby. She's just well adjusted enough to work (though it does add a sad level of over-interpretation when she freaks out about getting a spell wrong).
  12. D'Snowth

    D'Snowth Well-Known Member

    Well, yeah, I know all that, and I guess, in retrospect, it would make sense as to why it's always her mommy she talks about, talks to on her cellwand, among other things. I think it's probably because she's such a major part of the Muppet cast, that it seems like choosing her to try to tackle the issue again almost seems like they didn't even think about considering any other characters. Snuffy wasn't quite at the forefront of the Muppet cast then (and not sure he is now)... or, maybe I'm just overthinking this whole thing like I tend to do... never me mind...
  13. Oscarfan

    Oscarfan Well-Known Member

    I swear, if I ever work for SW, I'm sneaking into their archives and watching the Snuffy episode. I'd love to see what it's like, especially the use of segments; if it was a story that took up the full hour (unlike Hooper's death, which was at the tail end of the episode), it'd seem very hard to have all those emotional scenes supplemented with silly songs about the alphabet and such.
    BobThePizzaBoy likes this.
  14. The Count

    The Count Moderator Staff Member

    *Has no idea what monsters are being mentioned about in that proposed nightmare scenario involving :p.

    BTW: Oscarfan, didn't you ask Santa for a life this Christmas?

    You probably tried to write him a letter... But ate the pencil.
    You probably tried to type a letter also... But ate the typewriter too.
    Oh, you might have even tried to call Santa on the phone! But that reminded you of two cuppycakes, and so you ate that too.

    :insatiable: Oh, now Santa will never bring you a life!

    This, from a guy who doesn't have a life either.
  15. D'Snowth

    D'Snowth Well-Known Member

    I asked Santa for a new Fenwick and Bob Blob entry for the holidays, not sure if I'll find that in my virtual stocking this year or not, but I digress.

    Life is what happens when you're making other plans.

    Oh wait, I think I said that already, in another thread.

    Life is like insects: nobody wants them, and yet, they're still there all the time.

    How did we get off track here? What are you all looking at me for? Meh...

    I like Caroll's remark about the outcome of the Snuffy divorce episode: "There went a hundred-thou out the window!" I think Lou Berger also made similar remarks, but then again, the kids got upset, so I guess there really wasn't a whole lot they could do then. Well, I'm sure there was, but I think they went the high road and shelved it to avoid upsetting kids across the nation.
  16. Oscarfan

    Oscarfan Well-Known Member

    I wonder how often they shelve things like that; like your quote, it's a lot of money wasted. I mean, things like that "Super Grover 2.0" song seem pretty costly to make; I personally don't think it could've tested well at all, the message is completely lost because the lyrics are too rapidly sung.

    And there might be some Fenwick/Bob Blob stuff soon, especially a 4-year celebration thing I haven't finished yet.
  17. D'Snowth

    D'Snowth Well-Known Member

    I've often wondered the same thing; I thought there was actually a page on Muppet Wiki about that, but I guess not (the Snuffleupagus divorce episode, yes; other shelved episodes, no).

    I think the only other thing that comes close is Episode 4029 being pulled after it's initial airing since kids responded more to the amusing scene of Telly and Izzy in the hospital, than the actual anti-bullying message the episode meant to send.
  18. Drtooth

    Drtooth Well-Known Member

    I think they could have very well done the same story again with Snuffy, just telling it retrospectively. Me? I'm just glad it's not Elmo. Every time they have one of these specials they need him, as he's the most relatable character. And wouldn't you know, it's always something unfortunate. His father gets deployed to Iraq, his mother got fired from her job thus putting them in a bad financial situation, his uncle dies. Imagine if the divorce was his parents. No wonder he always wants to be the center of attention. His family may be very loving, but misfortune follows him around enough to be escapist. That brings a dark side to Elmo's World.

    So, looking at the characters.... Big Bird has no parents, and that's so important it was the basis of a movie, Telly's neurotic and overly emotional, Grover tries very very very hard to please people, someone could call out Cookie for an eating disorder, Baby Bear has a loving family that will be jarring to see them split up, Snuffy would probably work, Murray seems like a disconnected host and nothing is known outside his exploits with his friend Ovejita (though he could work too), and as far as Oscar goes, I'm pretty sure grouch marriages would never end in divorce because they probably like all that fighting and being miserable. Also, that would just add to the fridge tear jerker of thinking WAAAAY too into why Ernie and Bert live together, as they keep establishing them to be children.
  19. Oscarfan

    Oscarfan Well-Known Member

  20. Convincing John

    Convincing John Well-Known Member

    Grover's kind of in that same ballpark as Abby. He's always mentioning (or calling for) his mommy. But...Grover's dad was mentioned only twice in a couple of storybooks. I wondered if they decided once upon a time to have a couple of major characters in single parent homes. Notice that we saw Roosevelt Franklin and his mom a lot, but never his dad. It wouldn't have been that hard to create a dad character for both of them (a spare Grover puppet with a mustache or something) and an AM for Roosevelt's dad...or even in storybooks. No, Roosevelt isn't around anymore, but he sure was a big character back then. Kids related to him then (and Grover still) the way they do to Abby.

    But...they might have wanted to address the situation without focusing an episode or a book on it. Could have been something the writers or Joan or Jon or Lloyd wanted to hint at. It's a good question for Joan for an interview. If you asked Frank, he might have an answer, but maybe not.

    Muppet parentage is an odd thing when you think about it. I always thought of Bert as the adult and Ernie as the kid. They act that way in the clips and it's easy to think of Bert working in an office all day while Ernie messes up the apartment.

    Big Bird has Granny Bird who visits and calls, but who knows where his parents are/were. Did they build Big Bird's nest, lay the egg, then leave a note for Susan and Gordon to take care of him? I always wondered that. Kids have asked Loretta Long "Are you Big Bird's mother?" LOL!

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