BY GREG TOPPO | GANNETT
ASTORIA, N.Y. — This season, “Sesame Street” is brought to you by the number “1” and the letters “A,” “B” and “R.”
As in 1BR, 1BA.
As always, the characters of the beloved children’s show will teach preschoolers valuable lessons. But when the 46th season debuts Jan. 16, starting at 8 a.m., a newly refurbished and expanded set will more overtly show exactly where each of the main characters lives on the renowned block.
The move is intentional. It reinforces the “realness” of the neighborhood and quietly helps young children form closer bonds with the characters, creators say. That helps make the lessons stick.
“We’ve always been this real neighborhood,” said Carol-Lynn Parente, the show’s executive producer. “And though we compete with animation, which is very vibrant and active, what resonated with people was that we had this very wonderful, real place.”
But after a nearly half-century on the air, the neighborhood was showing its age. So they decided to spiff it up a bit. The end result may send parents’ real estate envy through the roof.
“Sesame Street” has long been taped at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens. But the new, greener, more spacious, light-filled set might as well be a kid-friendly block in nearby Fort Greene or Brooklyn Heights. But realtors, take note: It’s close to the subway and brimming with locally owned stores — Big Bird shopped at Mr. Hooper’s before it was cool. And that new newsstand carries kale chips. Bike shop? Check. Bridge views? To die for.
The changes are part of a broad rethinking that goes well beyond the cosmetic. For one thing, each episode is being trimmed to 30 minutes, down from its long-standing hour. Each one will also be built, more or less, on a single theme. Researchers found the meandering, hour-long show was too much of a burden. Kids were often not sticking around for the second half.
“It’s overwhelming cognitively because there’s just so much information,” said Rosemarie Truglio, Sesame Workshop’s senior vice president of curriculum and content. “When you have a single topic and you bring it down to 30 minutes, I think it’s the right bite size for a child.”
She’s quick to point out that the change doesn’t mean modern kids can’t focus, a common complaint amid the distractions of electronic devices.
“We know kids can pay attention. They can watch television for a half-hour, an hour or even longer,” she said. “I think what we’re trying to do is to make that half-hour a much more cohesive experience.”
Each episode will be built around a single topic that interests children, “something they know a little bit about and would be very interested in,” said Brown Johnson, the show’s creative director: boo-boos, bedtime, Valentine’s Day or dinosaurs, for instance. “It keeps the show really anchored in the child’s world.”
From there, each episode develops thematically, offering lessons in literacy, health, empathy and other topics built around the show’s recently adopted mission statement: “Helping children grow smarter, stronger and kinder.”
Actually, Johnson said, the show’s biggest change had little effect: in August, “Sesame Street” announced a five-year partnership with HBO, in which new episodes will first air on the premium cable channel, then on PBS nine months later. So expect the new season on your local PBS station in September.
Back to the real estate.
Elmo now lives in a first-floor apartment at the front of the centrally located 123 Sesame Street. And Big Bird, his next-door neighbor, has moved his ample nest into an actual tree. The place is dreamy, with an antique lamp, natural lighting and handmade cabinetry. In previous seasons, said David Gallo, the show’s production designer, “it was just a nest — all of his stuff was in little boxes, and there was some furniture scattered around.”
Oscar the Grouch will soon emerge not just from his typical steel can, but from an assortment of trash bins, recycling bins and compost bins. And Cookie Monster lives in a walkup above Hooper’s Store. The store, like much of the neighborhood, got a new, more subtle look. Overall, the redesign allows cameras into places they could never go before, following characters onto a rooftop garden or, for instance, around Elmo’s entire brownstone in a single shot. “There’s the ability to take the audience on a journey through the space that’s a little bit more sophisticated,” he said.
With stronger relationships come greater benefits, Truglio said. Kids focus more intently and change their behaviors when they feel closer to a character. But building relationships is tricky. Make the place too specific and you can lose viewers. Though the show originated in Manhattan in 1969, “Sesame Street” producers have always been a bit cagey about whether the neighborhood is, in fact, in New York City. Viewer surveys have suggested that kids — even rural kids — think it’s their neighborhood.
So when Gallo redesigned the place, he was careful not to reproduce a specific neighborhood or even a specific block. He drove around all five boroughs of the city and snapped pictures, then Photoshopped them into a set of likely facsimiles.
As for the beautiful red suspension bridge that now rises above the neighborhood? It’s a combination of three different bridges, all of them mashed together.
Sorry, realtors: Even GPS won’t tell you how to get to “Sesame Street.”