Since 1972, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has aired a Canadian version of Sesame Street, the popular children's series produced by the Children's Television Workshop in the US. The CBC buys the previous year's production from CTW, deletes content applicable only to the United States, eg., Spanish, US holidays, money and the letter Z, and then adds Canadian produced segments. The resulting programs are aired daily on the CBC each morning. Since 1972, more than 2000 segments of 30 second to four minutes have been produced.
This paper contains information on the process of producing the Canadian content: the goals of the Canadian segments, the types of production styles, the localities where production takes place and the segment evaluation process. The paper also contains a discussion of issues involved in the production and research process, further attempts at Canadianisation and difficulties encountered in the project. Other topics which will be discussed are plans to allow schools to use segments for teaching French and other subjects and the introduction of three Canadian muppets.
The Children's Television Workshop (CTW) used powerful formal features and solid research to create Sesame Street, a magazine format television program for preschoolers in 1969. In 1972, a modified version of the program was aired in Canada (Lavoie, 1986). This paper describes the process of producing the Canadian version, describes major Canadian goals and discusses issues related to the production of the program.
Comstock (1975) and Hawkins and Pingree (1981) suggested that where the environment does not contain information about a topic, television provides such a picture. Sesame Street, as a show designated for Canadian preschoolers who in all probability have seldom been outside their neighbourhoods, needed to reflect the Canadian cultural reality. As a result the CBC decided not to air the US program in its entirety. Instead, the decision was made to edit the US version and add Canadian material. The decision was based on Canada's priority for French rather than Spanish and on the necessity to reflect a different society. While the US has large Black and a large Hispanic minorities, these two groups while present in Canada do not form large minorities. The principle of adding Canadian content also allowed writers, music composers, performers, animators, directors and producers to practise their crafts on a show which reaches 90% of its potential audience daily. This decision to adapt Sesame Street to the Canadian culture was reached in 1970; later it would be reinforced by MacBride et. al. (1980) who indicated that the cultural identity of every country had to be preserved while promoting knowledge of other cultures.
An important department in CBC has been the Children's Department which actively supports and produces excellent programs for children including Sesame Street and programs for adolescents like Kids of Degrassi Street and Degrassi Junior High. CBC's audience share is approximately 20%, compared to 31.6% for the US networks (CBC, 1987). Seventy-six percent of CBC's English television content is Canadian; 20% is American and four percent comes from elsewhere (CBC, 1987).
With input from the Advisory Committee, the program's executive producer decides the season's priorities. Writers are then commissioned to prepare scripts for proposed segments. After scripts are scrutinised by production staff and selected experts, production teams in seven cities produce 100-150 segments each year. Each segment lasts between six seconds and three minutes (Caron-Bouchard and Bouchard, 1982). Some segments are animated, some are live. Most segments are filmed although a small number are videotaped. Segments include location shooting and studio shooting. The program uses all types of animation (cell, clay, beads, sand, cutouts, puppets) and combination segments incorporating both live and animated footage. Almost all segments feature children. All segments are set to original music, composed and performed in Canada.
The goal of introducing French words, phrases and French conversations to children has been accomplished using a range of formats. Some segments present a French word or phrase which is linked to appropriate visuals. In some cases, the word is presented once; in others, several presentations occur. In some segments, several examples of the word being communicated are given. For instance, a presentation of the French word for glass might be linked to several types of glasses. Segments dealing with concrete objects are easy to produce. However, segments which deal with action verbs have been more problematic. Often the action verb can be confused with the objects presented.
Bilingual segments present English and French words or phrases either as direct translations of each other or as complementary phrases. The type of segment seems to dictate the format. In another format, one language is used as a question and the other is used as the answer. A recent segment introducing 'Dans ma poche' (In my pocket) asked "Where 'ya going to put it?" The French answer was "Dans ma poche". Strong visuals illustrate the questions and the answer so that the child will make the link between the words and the visuals.
In a relatively new format, the child is told that a word is 'French' for a certain English word. In previous formats, the child may have been unaware that a particular word is a French word and may assume that an object merely has two names. In the cueing format, the producer has one of the characters say overtly that the word is French. Conversational French items usually depict an interaction between people speaking French at normal conversational speed with all local accents and wording (and sometimes errors) left intact. Part of the objective here is to point out to Canadian children who have no exposure to a totally francophone environment that life takes place in French. Some recent segments have added some English narration which breaks in to explain the sequence of events.
There has been little research on the efficiency of the various models of presenting French using television. Research must focus on the best formats for achieving particular goals such as vocabulary or phrase acquisition and exposure to spoken French. Issues involve whether content can be presented as spoken words or a song, the number of times a word is introduced, whether conversation French segments achieve their objectives, the necessity for exact audiovisual correspondence and the necessity for live speakers mouthing the words.
There are difficulties associated with the production of French segments. Many segments are produced by anglophone producers who have learned French as a second language. D'Anglejan (1986) has suggested that translation does not always work. For instance, the word 'up' has many different meanings in English. They cannot always be translated as 'en haut'. Relational concepts like big, bigger, biggest, which work well in English are awkward in French. It has been suggested that people in segments be seen communicating in both languages to model a desirable situation in Canada. D'Anglejan suggests that producers start with the French content to be taught and then design the segment around it.
Producers have been faced with another difficult issue when it comes to producing French segments. In Montreal, native French speakers abound. However in other parts of Canada, it is more difficult to locate adult and child actors who can speak French fluently. Regional wording which sometimes includes errors does not help. The Quebec language authority which is trying to purify the French language in Quebec has also created a new awareness of the quality of French used. During the most recent screenings, a segment originally produced in 1976 had a new soundtrack added. The original contained the French phrase 'C'est le fun'. Although this construction might have been acceptable then, current thinking made it less desirable.
Program segments often include visible minorities: Orientals, East Indians, Blacks and Native People. There is no special attention drawn to the minority person; he or she is integrated into the segment. Before 1985, few minority adults were shown but since 1985, Oriental, Black and East Indian adults have appeared in segments. Since 1986, animators working on segments began to include visible minorities as animated characters in the segments. The rationale behind including visible minorities in segments is that children who are members of these groups will see themselves reflected on television and as a result may feel legitimised by it (Berry and Mitchell-Kernan, 1982).
In another effort to introduce various cultures to Canadians, producers are experimenting with ways of including musical backgrounds reflective of Canada's cultures. The rich heritage of Anglo-Celtic music and the skirl of the pipes have not yet been heard as background in segments, but recent segments have witnessed an increase in the use of instruments like the accordion instead of guitars, keyboards and percussion. The rich lyrical styles of southern Europe, the haunting sitar, ragas, Eastern melodies in minor keys and the percussive rhythms of the Caribbean are being considered for future productions.
Another form of introducing multicultural content is to present the customs of a specific cultural group. Segments have focused on dance, food, entertainment, families, dress and folklore. This area has been one of the most difficult to negotiate for the producers. While it is theoretically desirable to present high profile culture in a segment, there are inherent dangers. The characteristic being presented may be viewed as a stereotype of the culture. For instance, Ukrainian dancing is very popular in western Canada. A segment on Sesame Street showed young people dancing in red boots and labelled the dance as Ukrainian. To some, the segment was seen as stereotyping the Ukrainians as people who wear red boots.
As the program explores cultural customs, more difficulties may arise. Many Moslem cultures segregate boys and girls, especially in play. It was recently suggested to the Advisory Committee that segments which showed boys and girls playing together might be offensive to some people. The position taken by the Committee was that boys and girls play together in Canada and that the program would continue to reflect this practice. Similarly, segments have been deliberately designed to show girls and women performing non traditional tasks. Opposition from cultures which do not believe in equality is not likely to be considered seriously because they do not reflect the Canadian norm.
Producers from the region may naturally reflect their region. Segments shot in Vancouver or Halifax often use ocean scenes as a backdrop. Prairie segments reflect the broad flat land in the middle of Canada. The program has resisted producing segments which present a city in a travel ad format preferring instead to show the region as a background. The problem of stereotyping can also occur here. When most Canadians from central Canada think of the Maritimes, visions of beaches, sailboats, fish and lighthouses come to mind. Segments from the maritime regions must reflect more than these stereotypes if they are to contribute to regional understanding. The other difficulty is that except for Halifax, St. John's and Vancouver which because of their location are very distinctive, sections of other Canadian cities look very much alike. Fredericton, New Brunswick looks much like Windsor, Ontario or Regina, Saskatchewan. Urban segments from the regions may be difficult to identify as regional segments unless they present some features of the city recognisable to local residents and perhaps to others. For instance, any Ottawa segment which had a glimpse of Parliament Hill would tell all Canadians that the segment was shot in Ottawa. Obviously, it is CBC's hope that to resolve the problem of urban similarity producers will look beyond the city boundaries for locations and sites which represent regional distinctiveness.
The most significant change has been the introduction of three Canadian muppets. Dodi is a bush pilot, an legendary career familiar to both Australia and Canada. She flies around the country in a small plane and provides the opportunity to visit cities around the nation. The introduction of the Dodi segments has allowed producers to use footage of Canadian landmarks like Niagara Falls and the Calgary Stampede with the studio segments hosted by Dodi in her plane. The other two muppets include Basil, who looks like a bear, and Louie, who looks like an otter. Louie is bilingual and helps Basil to learn French. The three muppets have been placed in segments together and have also been linked with children, animated sections and stock footage. The muppets have allowed producers to deal with content similar to New York segments from a Canadian perspective.
In an interview (Whittington, 1979), the executive producer of Sesame Street suggested that a segment would have a Canadian flavor because Canadian ideas and Canadian talent automatically provide a Canadian perspective. Canadian values, he suggested would inevitably come through in the style of the production. If this hypothesis is correct, Canadians should be able to differentiate Canadian segments from their US counterparts regardless of content. This whole area, however, is one which requires intensive further study including a content analysis to discover if there are any differences in formal features between different national productions of this show.
At the content level, it is possible to identify cultural heritage based on overt cues as to location. For example in some cities major landmarks such as Parliament Hill in Ottawa or Citadel Hill in Halifax immediately identify the location to many people. Audio cues could also give more generalised locations such as region of the country. In the muppet segments, Dodi's plane and her flying jacket both display the flag, clearly labelling them as Canadian.
There has been an interest in further use of Sesame Street segments in schools and other formal learning environments. The French segments were of particular interest. CBC Enterprises, the marketing arm of the CBC, has begun to make segments available for purchase. However, the mentality of selling a half hour program has been hard to break. Lewis (1983) found that teachers liked the flexibility of using segments as units and not as part of a long program. The marketing strategy for CBC Enterprises with its emphasis on producing 30 minute programs may make segment television difficult to obtain.
In addition to regular program evaluation, Sesame Street poses many questions for future research. One involves the teaching of French by television in the Sesame Street formats. Lewis (1983) found that segments could be effective in teaching vocabulary to elementary school students. A later study investigated the effect of formal features such as music and multiple presentations of vocabulary on comprehension (Lewis, 1984). There have been no studies with kindergarten students dealing with the question of the effectiveness of the language teaching formats.
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|Author: Richard F. Lewis is Associate Professor of Communication Studies and Director of Educational Resources at the University of Windsor. He holds the PhD degree in Instructional Technology from Syracuse University. Dr. Lewis is Chairman of the Advisory Committee of CBC Sesame Street. His research interests include children and television, instructional design and computer user interaction.
Please cite as: Lewis, R. F. (1988). Customising Sesame Street for Canadian children. In J. Steele and J. G. Hedberg (Eds), Designing for Learning in Industry and Education, 58-67. Proceedings of EdTech'88. Canberra: AJET Publications. http://www.aset.org.au/confs/edtech88/lewis.html