Media World: After 40 years, it's not always a sunny day on Sesame Street

It should be a year of celebration on Sesame Street. With First Lady Michelle Obama kicking off the season for the show's 40th anniversary next Tuesday, the program has no shortage or accomplishments to smile about. Sesame Street has won more than a hundred Emmys, and a handful of its staffers have been there from the beginning, including award-winning cameraman Frank Biondo, and Caroll Spinney, who still plays Big Bird at age 75.

But even as the beloved children's public-TV show turns 40, its milestone is tarnished by the March announcement from Sesame Workshop, the New York–based nonprofit behind the show, that it would lay off a fifth of its staff of 355. Turns out you can't always count on a sunny day sweeping the clouds away.
During a taping at the company's Queens, N.Y. headquarters last month, Sesame Workshop's VP of corporate communications, Ellen Lewis, understandably seemed determined to keep coverage upbeat. The layoffs, she says, are "old news."

Cloudy Days?

But try as it might, life on Sesame Street has not escaped economic reality. Today's preschool parents are increasingly reluctant to purchase new toys and videos featuring Elmo and his furry friends (including Rosita, pictured with Elmo above), some toy-industry experts say, when consumers' finances are tight, and perfectly good used Muppets can be found on Craigslist and eBay.

Forty years ago, the Sesame Street characters didn't have many rivals competing for the attention of its young audience. But that was before Elmo went up against Barney, Dora, and the Tele-Tubbies.

Sesame Street's cast and crew -- including Kevin Clash, the voice of Elmo -- say that this year's layoffs haven't hurt the show's quality, and that Sesame Street is functioning fine with fewer people. "We tried to simplify our show a little bit," says Carole-Lynne Parente, Sesame Street's executive producer.

Sesame Workshop may be a non-profit, but it's got money and influence. In May, the Muppets mingled with Sheryl Crow, Mike Bloomberg, and Al Roker at the annual Sesame Gala fundraiser in New York City. And although the overtime budget has been slashed, some employees are paid quite well. CEO Gary Knell earned $739,008 in 2007, according to Sesame Workshop's 2008 filing to the IRS. Head writer Joey Mazzarino, who plays Murray the Monster and directs, earned $559,366, and Big Bird (a.k.a. Spinney) earned $317,657.

Plunging PBS Ratings

But government support has slackened, as production costs soared and ratings for the show's network, Public Broadcasting System, plunged. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting awarded Sesame Workshop grants totaling $18 million last year, and Sesame got a $2.5 million grant to support Families Stand Together: Feeling Secure in Tough Times, its acclaimed special about the economic crisis, in which Elmo's mommy got laid off.

Even as ratings for PBS affiliates have been plunging -- viewership at one member station, Houston's KUHT, plunged 84 percent between May 2008 and May 2009, according to Current.org -- Sesame has found a ready source of cash in merchandising its beloved Muppet characters. Sesame's 2007 revenue was $136.9 million -- up $135.6 million from a year earlier.

Still, that was before 2008's Wall Street meltdown and the national recession. And Sesame's merchandise competes in highly competitive markets. Sales of infant and preschool toys fell 6 percent, to $3.15 billion, between January and August, according to NPD Group; U.S. toy sales overall fell 3 percent to $21.5 billion.

The 40th Anniversary

On November 10, the 40th anniversary date, Sesame Workshop will release a DVD, Sesame Street: 40 Years of Sunny Days. And despite the hard times and hard numbers, the Sesame Street set remains relentlessly sunny.

"I just love what I do," says Leslie Carrara-Rudolph, the voice of Abby Cadabby since 2006. (During our interview, she improvised a routine to amuse a young visitor to the set -- a boy who conversed with Abby Cadabby and paid no attention to Carrara-Rudolph. That's a typical reaction from kids, she says -- and from some adults.) "I have the joy of playing a wish fairy on the show," she says, "and it's a full-time job to grant wishes on and off Sesame Street every day."

Clash, the show's director and Muppet Captain, is a large, hulking man whose deep baritone voice is the polar opposite of his alter ego's bubbly falsetto. "To be able to see, touch, and tickle one of their friends from Sesame Street is far more interesting than paying attention to the guy behind the red monster," Clash says.

During our brief interview, Clash ate a bowl of chicken-noodle soup: therapy, he explained, to keep from wearing out his voice while performing the pipsqueak of the ubiquitous Elmo. "Three hours is my limit," he says.

Still, he did find the time to record a voicemail for my three-year-old son. It may be partly cloudy on Sesame Street, but in my household, at least, Elmo is on voicemail -- and a fan from the newest generation can't contain his excitement.

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