As ratings dip, an aging "Sesame Street" heads to Madison Avenue to learn the ABC's of advertising

When Sesame Street debuted in 1969, it was practically the only educational kids’ show on the block. These days, children’s programming is prime real estate, and more than 75 shows on broadcast and cable have moved in on Street’s turf. Come fall, that neighborhood will get even more crowded, thanks to a federal regulation requiring networks to air three hours of educational kids’ programming per week.

How does a timeworn, financially challenged children’s show compete? What would seem the obvious solution — advertise! — was an alien concept to the Children’s Television Workshop (producer of Street), since it survived without anything but PBS plugs for nearly 30 years. But ratings have been steadily declining (from 12.6 for kids ages 2-5 in 1990 to 9.5 last year) thanks to growing upstarts like Nickelodeon, whose Nick Jr. programming for preschoolers continues to gain momentum.

It was time to call in the Big Bird. So, for the first time ever, CTW has mounted a small, $1 million advertising campaign (ads running on radio and broadcast and cable TV began in November and will run through this month). That budget may sound bargain-basement when you consider that one 30-second ad during the Super Bowl costs an estimated $1.2 million, but since CTW pours its entire $20 million profit from merchandise into producing Street, $1 million is a number even the Count would deem beyond his grasp.

”Without doing more promotion, we were going to get lost in the shuffle,” admits Jo Holz, vice president of research for CTW. Adds marketing VP Allyson Felix: ”I don’t want to say we’re taking the competition on. We’re just putting our stake in the ground a little bit more.”

The kinetic spots — which air during daytime soaps, cable series, and syndicated sitcoms like Seinfeld — specifically target young mothers on three levels: nostalgia (remember how much you loved the show?), the facts (a cited research study suggests Street watchers are better prepared for elementary school), and celebrity endorsement (working mom Rosie O’Donnell does the voice-overs). Of O’Donnell’s involvement, Holz says, ”It’s a way of showing parents that we’re still hip.”

Hipness has never been a problem for Sesame Street, as Hollywood’s in crowd is always happy to drop by. ”Sesame Street is one of those places where you walk in the doors and you’re immediately humbled,” says ER‘s Noah Wyle, who appeared twice this season. ”It’s not like other venues where they want you. You want them.”

But hipness doesn’t always translate into viewers. To ensure that audiences continue to want Street cred, CTW has several other profile-raising projects in the works: a feature film in development for Columbia Pictures; Tickle Me Cookie Monster is due in May (Tickle Me Ernie and Big Bird dolls are currently available in stores); and a 30th-anniversary special. With so much in the pipeline, Sesame Street‘s competition may soon learn the same lesson Wyle took home after his visits: ”It’s very hard not to be upstaged by the Muppets.”

Sesame Street
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