Sesame Street is set to undergo some major renovations.
The long-running children’s series will be getting a creative overhaul for its 56th season, which will debut in 2025.
“With any change you have evolutions, and then you have things that are slightly bigger steps, while still staying core to who we are,” says Steve Youngwood, the CEO of Sesame Workshop, in an interview with The Music news. “We felt like this was a moment to step back and think bigger about how we evolve it.”
The most significant change will see the program drop the “magazine”-style format it has long used in favor of two longer, more narrative-driven segments, which will be paired with a new animated series, Tales from 123. The new format will feature two 11-minute story segments, with the new animated series sandwiched in between them.
“It’s going to give us an opportunity to dive further into the narrative,” says Kay Wilson Stallings, the executive vp and chief creative development and production officer for Sesame Workshop, calling the changes a “reimagining” of the show, and adding that the longer segments will allow for more “dynamic” and “sophisticated” stories.
It could, for example, allow for both an “A” story and a ‘B” story, with the A story focusing on a core character and what they are going through, and the B story adding in “a little bit more levity and a lot more character moments,” Wilson Stallings says.
“Both the A story and the B story will come together in some way to really help us with whatever curricular focus that we’re trying to have, what lesson we’re trying to make,” she adds. “Kids love a little bit of peril, they love having emotional stakes, and in nine minutes, it’s kind of hard to really dive into those areas really effectively. And so, by opening up these segments and making them longer, it’s going to give us an opportunity to really serve up what we know from research, what we know from across the industry, what we know from our curriculum and education experts, what we know kids are looking for.”
The changes are the most significant for Sesame Street since 2016, when the show went from one hour to 30 minutes, though it kept the magazine-style format even as it made the program shorter, with a “street scene” leading into a letter or number of the day segment, followed by an Elmo’s World animated segment, etc.
There will be other tweaks as well, including having a signature song in every episode (Wilson Stallings says they hope to bring famous singers in to help sing some of them) and having the Muppet characters address the camera to talk to the kids watching the show.
As for the new animated series, Tales from 123, Wilson Stallings says that the series “for the very first time will give viewers an opportunity to go inside 123 Sesame Street, which is probably the most famous apartment building in the world.”
“And there, beyond the stoop, is where monsters and humans and fairies and dinosaurs and talking numbers and letters and even food will call home,” she adds. “So this will be a great opportunity for our audience to explore a whole new part and a whole new world of Sesame Street.“
Wilson Stallings says that the new series — which could eventually be developed into its own spinoff — has been in the works for some time, collaborating with both internal and external creative talent.
“The assignment that we gave them was, we want a five-minute animated segment that includes our core characters,” she says. “When we do these segments, it doesn’t necessarily link into the A story or the B story, we just want something that feels very characterful, that has a lot of humor, that really kind of highlights the best components of who our characters are.”
Wilson Stallings says that they were inspired by Joan Ganz Cooney, the co-creator of Sesame Street and founder of Sesame Workshop, who pushed for the show to try and stay contemporary.
“She always talked about Sesame Street as being like an experiment,” Wilson Stallings explains. “And she said that regularly we need to look at the creative, look at who kids are, look at what they are interested in, look at what we’re trying to instill in terms of an educational curriculum, pull all that together and on a regular basis assess Sesame Street and see where we need to make tweaks and where we need to make some enhancements to further evolve it.”
Sesame Street is nearing the end of a five-year deal with Warner Bros. Discovery, which debuts new episodes on its Max streaming service (the episodes also air on PBS after a nine-month delay).
As it happens, Sesame Workshop’s current deal with WBD ends after season 55 (which will begin about a year from now), meaning that the new-look Sesame Street will coincide with the beginning of its next rights deal. New episodes will debut on whatever channel or platform picks up the show, be it with WBD and Max, or somewhere else if they decide not to renew.
“The fact that it aligns with where we go after the current Warner deal is over, it just happens to be where the timing is,” Youngwood says. “We always want to be relevant to the audience. We always want to give the audience some reasons to watch the new [episodes], while they can still watch the library.”
And with more than 50 seasons of episodes, there is a very large library. HBO Max made headlines last year after it removed about 200 episodes of Sesame Street from its library, though the CEO argues that consumers value that content.
“Particularly in today’s world, the library is so valuable and giving them [consumers] a new experience while they can also hold on to the old experience, or if they really want to be classic they can hold on to the experiences that their parents or shall I say their grandparents actually grew up with,” he says.
Indeed, the long history of Sesame Street (it debuted in 1969!) “plays to our advantage, because people want things that break through the clutter,” Youngwood says, adding that they need to “take a brand that people trust, and make sure you do it in a fresh and new and exciting way. That’s what we feel we need to do to make sure that we’re around another 10 years, 20 years, let alone 50 years.”
A Q2 Harris Poll found that Sesame Street was a top 5 brand in categories like “Trust,” Quality,” Fun” and “Dependable.”
Sesame Workshop has worked hard to expand beyond the flagship show. It now produces content for YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, has a game on Roblox, and is investing in the podcast space, including new podcast episodes that will serve as companions to TV episodes. It’s also developed corporate partnerships. (Oscar the Grouch is United Airlines’ “Chief Trash Officer” for example.)
“The show is core to who we are, but we can’t be a TV company,” Youngwood says. “It’s a bit of evolution, it’s not like we woke up yesterday and decided to do it. But as platforms evolve and as the gift of digital allows you to reach audiences in different ways, that’s what we’re doing on a very continuous basis.”