Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street … in different countries? | News | Notre Dame News

South African children play with Kami, a furry, yellow, five-year-old HIV-positive Muppet girl orphaned by AIDS.  ©2007 Sesame Workshop.  All rights reserved.  Photographed by Ryan Heffernan.
South African children play with Kami, a furry, yellow, five-year-old HIV-positive Muppet girl orphaned by AIDS. ©2007 Sesame Workshop. All rights reserved. Photographed by Ryan Heffernan.

Over the past half-century, Sesame Workshop (the non-profit organization that produces Sesame Street) has created local adaptations of Sesame Street with partners in more than a dozen countries around the world. Developed in the years following the launch of President Johnson’s War on Poverty and in the midst of the civil rights movement, Sesame Street grew out of a desire to use television to educate children, with a particular focus on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As we all know, Sesame Street became a national sensation that grew into a powerful children’s “edutainment” franchise.

However, looking beyond the US, how would the phenomenon unfold? With other languages ​​and alphabets, Graf von Graf could certainly explain simple math and Grover could teach letters to children. Despite this, Sesame Street is so well-known in the US partly because the show is deeply immersed in US culture.

Tamara Kay, a professor of global affairs and sociology appointed jointly at the University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters and the Keough School of Global Affairs, examined how this cultural marvel was locally adapted around the world and the parrot Abelardo Montoya, a big bird, spawned Equivalent in the Mexican version and Yam Monster, the Nigerian version of Cookie Monster.

Her research paper, Culture in Transnational Interaction: How Organizational Partners Coproduce Sesame Street, was recently published in Theory and Society journal and provides a framework for how transnational organizational partners or teams can engage in more equitable collaboration when they co-produce a hybrid cultural product together.

Since there is very little research on the process of creating transnational hybrids, Kay’s framework could be valuable for government organizations, NGOs, and private companies seeking cross-cultural partnerships. Her seven years of research took her to Sesame Workshop’s offices in New York, then to Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Nigeria with New York collaborators. She observed and participated in a variety of meetings, seminars, workshops, and training sessions, and conducted more than 200 hours of interviews with New York employees and partners in other countries. What struck Kay most was how New York associates and partners in individual country teams around the world built relationships, negotiated, and managed conflict.

“When I started the project, I thought partners in less resourced countries would want less interaction and more autonomy from New York employees. But the opposite was actually the case,” Kay said. “They wanted more feedback, more support. As I watched New York collaborators and partners around the world interact in real time to co-produce a local adaptation of Sesame Street, I realized their interactions aligned interests, mitigated asymmetric power dynamics, facilitated mutual learning, and built trust. It wasn’t just about what they created, but how they built relationships to create it together.”

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Kay’s research on Sesame Street is distinctive and valuable because it is one of the few projects based on real-time on-site observations of transnational interactions. The vast majority of research can only speculate as to why an adaptation mimics or deviates from its original.

“If you, as a researcher, are not in the room while these negotiations are taking place, you cannot understand the nature of the interactive process that led to the final form of an adaptation,” Kay said. “Like how McDonald’s and its Indian franchisees have made joint decisions about dining options there. But I sat in the room and watched in real time the discussions and negotiations between the organizing partners that influenced the decisions about the Sesame Street adaptations.”

Kay found that for a successful co-production, both the Sesame Workshop and partner team must set their goals and their non-negotiable points, and then discuss those aspects. For the former, “programs must be educational, employ a ‘whole child’ curriculum, and promote key values ​​such as nonviolence, tolerance and respect, equality and inclusion,” Kay said. “In terms of content and form, almost everything else is negotiable, including whether it’s going to be a television show at all… Partners have to decide if they can agree to these terms.” For the latter, local context is the guiding star; Does the program meet local goals and needs and do you have control over the content? Alignment of interests is key at this stage, Kay noted.

Tamara Kay and a Sesame Workshop staff member
Tamara Kay in Amman, Jordan with Palestinian puppeteer Fadi Alghoul and Haneen from Shira’a Simsim.

As she experienced in numerous meetings, it is exactly this give and take and the flexibility that makes co-productions possible. Kay’s data shows that “Sesame Workshop is very willing to find acceptable common ground — even on core issues,” she said. “And Sesame Workshop recognizes that its partners are willing to do the same.” This creates allies between teams, which is extremely important given the power dynamic between a team backed by a large, well-known and no doubt popular nonprofit , and a small team of local experts.

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“Many transnational projects, from public health and vaccination campaigns to agricultural experiments, fail,” Kay said. “Often that’s because participants, who hold the most power in a collaborative dynamic, are not engaging in a deep localization of the project that values ​​and prioritizes the knowledge, vision, and decision-making of the partners from start to finish.”

The process of value creation is not always without disagreements or conflicts, and not all potential partnerships are realized. Kay again emphasizes the open team discussions and the willingness of the New York employees to really listen to the experts from the local teams.

The HIV-positive character Kami, who stars in the South African version of Sesame Street titled “Takalani Sesame,” was years in development and didn’t come until after the first season and much criticism from South Africans that the program didn’t adhere to one of the country’s biggest problems: the HIV/AIDS health crisis, which left one in ten South African children without a caregiver. Some New York staff were suspicious because they were not experts in the field and the South African government’s stance was that HIV does not lead to AIDS. It was the South African team that eventually convinced many New York-based staff that developing an age-appropriate South African curriculum on HIV/AIDS, with a focus on destigmatization and addressing the grief of losing loved ones, was critical to addressing the health crisis.

“The more I learned about it, and the more devastating the numbers got, the more I realized it just wasn’t even a conversation I had the right to have anymore. It was something we had to try,” said one of the writers on the New York team.

Even after the New York writers agreed, there were many contentious meetings with other experts to develop the character that would be the vehicle for the curriculum. Portraying a character with HIV would have consequences. If an adult actor portrayed someone with HIV, he or she would never act again. If a child who had HIV in real life played the character, he or she would eventually die due to lack of treatment. In fact, back then, “no child with HIV in this country will live to be seven,” Kay wrote. Other options were explored and discarded in the context of South African culture or a desire not to sugarcoat reality. Ultimately, a female monster muppet named Kami was created, whose name means acceptance in various local languages.

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In India, the first foreign country with a subsidiary and local office, Sesame Workshop India Managing Director Sashwati Banerjee and her team developed a plan to create a for-profit preschool franchise called “Sesame Schools” that would support community service . The existing Sesame Street television program in India was called Galli Galli Sim Sim, and the New York office staff felt the school system should bear the same name.

The problem, Banerjee explained, “was that ‘Galli’ in India means – it doesn’t even mean a street – it literally means an alley. Gallis are associated with slums in India.” Since middle-class families would be more likely to welcome Sesame Street-related schools, the solution in India was a dual-brand strategy – to market everything under the Sesame Street umbrella, including the show Galli Galli Sim SIM”.

Few other major companies do co-productions like Sesame Workshop. “Disney, for example, employs cultural consultants and consultants on its films, including ‘Coco’ and ‘Encanto.’ These films were not co-produced as a transnational team with Mexican and Colombian partners,” Kay wrote. Sesame Workshop’s transnational collaborations, on the other hand, rely entirely on the co-production model to build a hybrid program.

“My theoretical model shows how teams in different countries that do not share collective representations are able to create them through transnational interaction, constructing values ​​to align their interests and sharing complex cultural knowledge to customize alliances and build up,” Kay wrote. “It’s about the co-production of a cultural object that results in multiple, distinct and unique hybrid cultural products. Each program resembles Sesame Street as an exceptionally abstract US cultural product, however each program looks very different and cannot be substituted for another.”

Moving on to analyzing the process of transnational co-production, Kay provides a new framework for understanding the factors that constrain and ignite adopters’ resistance to cultural globalization. The Sesame Workshop cases populating Kay’s frames are good examples of co-production that could set a standard for hybrid product development in other critical areas.

Kay’s framework is novel in that most of the existing research does not analyze the building of collaborative transnational organizational bonds, particularly between economic development organizations.

“It misses the cultural environment in which transnational partnerships are formed and their impact on outcomes,” Kay said.

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