Exploring 'Educational Entertainment': ‘On (the) Ontogeny of Orange Oscar’

Curator's Note

What are the origins of PBS programming? More importantly, why did Sesame Street change Oscar the Grouch's Season 1 color from orange to green? 

Historically, the impulse to advocate for a non-commercial component of the American ether emerged as an outgrowth of progressive-era concepts of public space. Clear precedents, such as allocations for national parks, public schools, settlement houses, and land-grant universities had shown that a concept of national identity successfully germinated through pro-public policies and strategies.

When the broadcasting model of radio emerged in 1921, distance-learning administrators seized upon the new public cognitive space of radio that so easily transgressed vast geographies with immediacy to reach targeted agrarian, gendered, and immigrant groups. Through classroom lecture as well as 'uplift' and 'citizenship' programs, educators paternalistically attempted to assimilate populations through free education.

However, early educational radio was plagued by low funding and interest, poor aesthetics, and a lack of standard practices--problems that continued through WWII. In the 1950s, through educational technology research, network precedent, grants, and an efficient but decentralized infrastructure of program exchange, university and state-based stations began to produce television programming that was both effective and stimulating.

By the mid-1960s educators had learned to consolidate critical curricular content and experiential learning into the formal commercial conventions of children's programming and Classic Network Television. The result was a series of seminal programs that appeared on the Eastern Educational Network (EEN) such as The French Chef and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. But it was the Children's Television Workshop that most successfully incorporated production aesthetics such as editing, blocking, sets, and camera movement to advance television instruction for early childhood education.

As an example, in season one of the CTW's Sesame Street, Oscar the Grouch appeared as orange when singing "I Love Trash". In what was for the 1960s a fairly progressive production, race and class roles are reversed as an African-American adult educates a white child to the plight of a homeless man named Oscar in a diverse urban setting. For season two they decided to change Oscar's 'skin' to green, as green was an easier color to film. This seemingly minor aesthetic decision exemplified a striking evolution from the poorly executed educational radio lectures of the 1920s to the trial-and-error production methods of PBS. Hence a core integrant of the history of public broadcasting includes the development of educational technology from classroom extension services to formal approaches to 'educational entertainment' on national public media.


Josh, I love the idea that aesthetic awareness reflects a maturation for educational television.  The seeming smallness of Oscar's change in color contextualized in a larger narrative of visual sophistication opens up quite a few avenues for conversation.

For example, do you know if the original critical reception of "Sesame Street" acknowledged this shift?  From what I've seen, the critics pretty much loved "Sesame Street" across the board, but I'm curious to know if your approach here is one that has been rather underdeveloped in the primary source materials.  Has the emphasis upon PBS' political and financial troubles overshadowed a consideration of its programming as entertainment and as aesthetic medium? 

Thanks for a great post, Josh! It's odd to see Oscar as orange, but wonderful to see Gordon's sideburns! 

It seems noteworthy to me that all three posts so far have focused on the same historical moment in U.S. public broadcasting. While it's appealing to read this time as high-water mark of sorts for public television, I like how you situate it as an evolution in educational programming more broadly.  Even the most ardent critics of PBS concede its value for children's educational television, and it is important to know just how long it took for educators to figure out how to use broadcasting as effective and entertainment instrument for this end. Interestingly, such a turn required integrating techniques used in commercial broadcasting into noncommercial programming.  Like Karen, I'm curious as to whether Sesame Street had its critics, especially from educational broadcasters who might have different, older notions of what educational telecasts should look like.

 Good stuff! It’s not surprising “educational entertainment” has some sort of roots traceable to the first third or so of the twentieth century. The “scientificization” and “psychologization” of childhood that was going on then spread its tentacles in so many directions: parent advice manuals and child study clubs, education, marketing, and certainly entertainment. And mixing children’s entertainment and education is centuries old. But this inclusion of aesthetics in the study seems to open new doors. Maybe the “tainment” of “edutainment” has been kind of diminished to something like, “You know, fun for kids! There’s games and songs and stuff.” But a more Humanities-based approach would be quite useful in revealing "the art" of edutainment and aesthetics impacting education. Sesame Street really tried to be “research based” in its pedagogical approach and methods. Given their educational approach in such a visual medium, I wonder if their research ever entailed aesthetics? You describe a case where aesthetics was determined by medium--green was easier to film then orange--but did they ever explore how aesthetics impacts education? Since education was Sesame Street’s primary goal, I wonder if they ever asked, “Does anyone learn better or worse from a green or orange Oscar?” 

 I was also struck by the continuity with the present. Just today I showed a PBS documentary in my undergrad class on digital literacies we were all very aware of how Entertaining it was! I think there’s been some work on the spread of children's educational formats and styles making their way into adult “informational” realms. (I recall a talk by Kenneth Kidd, at least, on those “ ______ for Dummies” books and those series of non-fiction “graphic novels” that are around now.) This makes me wonder about "adult edutainment" and what connection might exist with Sesame Street through PBS and aesthetics? Maybe PBS's early success with education-entertainment has played some part in shaping how more and more people now transmit and receive information: in aesthetically pleasing and entertaining ways?


Thanks everyone for your spot-on comments and questions.

The history of educational media has been part 'how do we use this technology?' and part 'how do we gain access within the established political structure to disseminate our experiments?'

I use the term 'educational entertainment' to try to account for incremental yet dialectical culimination in conception and execution of educational technology advocacy, which, as educators finally realized after WWII, necessarily included attention to aesthetic production. 


By Anonymous

This way it gets easier for the kids >fulfilling their needs, right? At the moment their childhood doesn't seem the same as it used to be in our time, so it's very sad! I would really love to see them as happy as we were back then.

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