Jeffrey Dunn, the president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, tells TV Kids about the strategies he put in place to make sure the nonprofit organization can continue its purpose of helping kids be “smarter, stronger and kinder,” in the U.S. and across the globe.
Next year, Sesame Street will mark its milestone 50th anniversary. Sesame Workshop’s flagship production, which is focused on preschoolers, has helped multiple generations of kids with their ABCs and 123s and created lifelong fans of its iconic Muppet creations like Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Grover, Elmo and many more. Sesame Workshop has also, since the ’70s, been adapting Sesame Street internationally, reaching kids worldwide with lessons in their own languages from Muppets born out of local cultures. While its mission hasn’t changed, Sesame Workshop has had to adjust its strategy over the years amid financial pressures on public broadcasting and shifting consumption habits. That included inking a deal with HBO for first-run rights to Sesame Street in the U.S.
TV KIDS: Tell us about the transformation plan you put in place at Sesame Workshop when you joined in 2014.
DUNN: The biggest change I’ve made is to make us relentlessly mission-focused. We were a TV show with a mission. Now we’re a mission-driven organization with a TV show. I had two major goals when I arrived: the first was to get the workshop on a firm financial footing. We needed to acknowledge the financial reality of our situation, given the changing media landscape. The second was to take a TV-centric organization and make it more diversified. When we evolved our mission to “helping kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder,” we asked ourselves how we could best achieve that mission. We decided the best way was to be great makers of content for all platforms, great researchers of kids’ and family educational media behavior, and instigators of others who share our mission and with whom we can partner for greater impact.
TV KIDS: As you approach the 50th season of Sesame Street in 2019, what have been the most significant evolutions for the show?
DUNN: The most significant recent change was in 2014, before our partnership with HBO, when we moved from an hour to a half-hour format, which is better suited to today’s preschool audience. We also recently pared down the show to focus more on core characters, and to include only one curricular topic per show. But the truth is, we are constantly evolving, constantly experimental, never complacent. That keeps us relevant.
We added HBO and Univision to our U.S. distribution mix. Sesame Street has aired uninterrupted on PBS since we first started almost 50 years ago. The audience fragmentation that everyone is grappling with creates a challenge for us in achieving our mission of reaching and helping all kids. So adding a behind-the-paywall partner like HBO and a demographically targeted partner like Univision have been key to both reaching our audience in today’s fragmented media world and also providing a revenue stream to replace lost DVD and character licensing revenues.
There is a great deal of research that goes into everything that we do. We start by canvassing educators about kids’ needs and topics we should address each season. We then hold curriculum seminars to bring in experts to work with our writers and producers. Our style is to have our characters model the behavior we are trying to teach. Sometimes, as we did with Julia (the first Sesame Street Muppet with autism), we think the only way we can credibly convey the learnings is to create a new character.
TV KIDS: Tell us about the gains in your global business and the various international versions of Sesame Street.
DUNN: The very first international production, Sesamstrasse, began in Germany in 1973. Today, we reach kids in some way in about 160 countries—often with local productions, produced in-country with local content and characters. We always work with local educators to develop the curriculum. In Afghanistan, we developed a girl Muppet, Zari,to help promote girl empowerment and gender equity; in South Africa we created Kami, the first HIV-positive Muppet, to explain to children how this disease could and could not be transmitted and to help them cope with grief and loss. Now, with the generous support of the MacArthur Foundation, we are going to help refugee children and families in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. These are some of the world’s most vulnerable children, and if organizations like ours don’t help them overcome the trauma of conflict and displacement, humanity could end up with a lost generation in a critical part of the world. We believe that reaching these kids can help build a more peaceful world for us all.
TV KIDS: Do you anticipate more collaborations such as the one with CBBC for The Furchester Hotel?
DUNN: Yes, we expect to continue to expand beyond Sesame Street to produce other shows, always with educationally nutritious content. Esme and Roy, a new co-production with Corus and Nelvana, is now in production for HBO, and we have others in development that we expect to announce shortly.
TV KIDS: Tell us about the Writers’ Room initiative.
DUNN: I am so proud of Brown Johnson [executive VP and creative director] and Kay Wilson Stallings [senior VP of creative development] for creating this! The Sesame Street Writers’ Room is a fellowship competition to find and develop new and diverse screenwriters. We give promising new writers coaching and mentoring from industry experts who can really help give them the kinds of critical lessons that are so important early in one’s career. We were delighted with how this program was embraced by both aspiring talent and industry veterans who wanted to help. Our first year was a tremendous success—the two winners are already writing scripts for us—and the second competition is underway.
TV KIDS: There’s a second Sesame Place opening by the fall of 2022. Do you anticipate further expansion of your theme-park business?
DUNN: That would be our preference. Last year was Sesame Place’s best year ever. Theme parks give families a unique and powerful way to experience our characters. Building more parks will enable us to connect with even more families and provide funding that supports our nonprofit mission. Every dollar we earn goes into supporting our mission and helping educate children.
TV KIDS: What kinds of businesses are you looking to invest in with Sesame Ventures?
DUNN: Sesame Ventures invests in start-ups that are mission-aligned with us. We partner with the best emerging companies innovating in education, health and social welfare for kids. We recognize that by ourselves we can only help so many kids become smarter, stronger and kinder. But if we partner with others who are also focused on helping children, our impact can expand dramatically. And, we have expertise and resources that can increase the odds of success in a start-up. In the same way that the creation of Sesame Street gave birth to a whole generation of new TV shows and networks, we’d like to help create a series of new ventures using new technologies. This also helps keep us on the cutting edge of what young entrepreneurs are achieving with technology, so there is a knowledge transfer and we benefit as well. Sesame Ventures has now invested in over 40 companies. We are using the proceeds from the 2012 sale of our stake in Sprout to NBCUniversal to fund this work.
TV KIDS: What are your major goals and opportunities for Sesame Workshop in the next 12 to 18 months, and what do you see as your biggest challenges?
DUNN: Right now, three things keep me up at night: ramping up our project in the Syrian response region, the toxic environment that today’s politics has created for kids, and the ever-changing media landscape. We are a small, independent nonprofit organization and we have to compete in a rapidly consolidating and evolving industry landscape, where others have far more scale and resources. So, we fight as the underdog. We have to stay focused, but also be nimble and urgent. I firmly believe that we are at a moment in history. Technology, demographics and politics have changed the landscape so much. Years from now, I think historians will reflect on the first quarter of the 21st century as a pivotal time for mankind. As William Wordsworth memorably wrote, “The child is father of the man.” In other words, if you want to see what a society is going to look like 20 or 30 years from now, see how it is treating its children today. There is so much at stake. We intend to lead and be a positive force for change.