Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sesame Street: Relevancy and a Model for Arts and Technology

Norah Jones. Not only do I think that she's one of the most grounded of household-name musicians, but I think she's hilarious--in her own subdued sort of way!--in this clip from Sesame Street.

Over the course of the last week, we've had the opportunity to interact with Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, which has got to be one of the classiest, fun-loving, and continually innovative educational organizations around. For over thirty years, through Sesame Street, they have been creating high-quality research-informed education to toddlers and... well... those who are a little older! Not only is it's impact felt by virtually every American born since the 1970s, but it thoroughly integrates the arts in the learning process. Who can count from 1-12 without doing it in the rhythm of the Pointer Sisters? What young child has never danced by Doing the Pigeon? And who does parodies of popular songs better using songs of The Beatles, Isaac Hayes, and others?

But while a great deal of recent news has been about Sesame Workshop's work as an international human rights organization, its work in exploring technology is actually of more interest to me. It has explored the idea of viral video quite successfully with Elmo and Chris Brown, with a video viewed well over 2.5 million times with no advertising:

Secondly, it has created weekly podcasts using Sesame Street characters that sell very well on iTunes. And, most of all, as Mr. Knell indicated, there are plans to launch an on-demand video archive of Sesame Street segments that would includes tags based on content. My impression is that it would be searchable like YouTube, but the tags would be curated and labeled by Sesame Workshop staff members so the quality of cataloging work is ensured.

But in general, the biggest thing I got out of Mr. Knell's time was his emphasis that Sesame Workshop needs to compete in these fields to be viable and relevant in the future. Even with its immense longstanding reputation as a producer of high quality content, it cannot and does not rest on its laurels and, despite its vastly inferior financial resources, Sesame Workshop still needs to compete for the attention of children against media giants like Nickelodeon, Disney, and Pixar. Does this need to compete correlate to the arts? I'm not sure I see it in most arts organizations, but I think it should! be evident in all of them!

While many performing arts organizations maintain an outstanding reputation as high quality arts providers, their competition is not each other, but rather against all the other things that battle for the time and attention of of would-be live arts consumers: iPods, internet, TV, movies, etc. So, not to get into the how quite yet, I'm advocating for arts organizations to fight the good fight. If live performance is important to us, we need to dedicate our work to reaching our consumers in the way that they naturally consume media, using the technologies they use whether they're podcasts, viral videos, or something else (MySpace, Friendster, or something not even built yet!), and by then connecting that to the more intimate and impactful experience of live performance. These new ventures in media should be thought of as integral to the survival of performing arts organizations, instead of superfluous "oh, I guess we should do this thing" tasks relegated to an inexperienced intern. We are now in the midst of a constantly changing media climate and in order for performing arts organizations to survive and prosper in the future, we need to toss away the initial hesitation to change and figure out how this technology thing can help us!