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'Sesame Street' Has a Lesson for 'The Muppets' About How Not to Lose Your Soul

With the addition of Julia, a character with autism, Sesame Street (unlike The Muppets) keeps up with the times without losing its soul. 


Sesame Street and The Muppet Show are two classic television shows from the 1970s, the former of which has been on the air some 4,000 episodes and the latter of which is limping along as a revival on ABC. The Muppets revival suffers from the kind of self-consciousness that kills comedy, and worse, it is so out of touch with its furry roots that it insults the franchise. Sesame Street, conversely, knows its audience and has remained an institution because it stays undeniably itself while keeping up with the culture.

Sesame Street has long been an advocate for inclusiveness. Its racially diverse cast and sensitivity around current events and relevant cultural issues have made the show a safe place for children to explore the sharp corners of their world. It educates not just about numbers and letters, but also about our culture and how to navigate the pleasures and pitfalls of childhood. This is represented in the show's latest character, a girl named Julia. Julia has autism. In the new online storybook We’re Amazing, 1, 2, 3! Elmo and Julia have a pretty normal hang out, except Elmo knows he has to do things a little differently with Julia. Helping kids understand differences is the Sesame Street brand; it’s public television doing a public service. Over the past four decades it’s been on the air, the show has found a delicate way to engage with its audience without talking down to them. Most shows for adults can’t even do that.

The Muppets, on the other hand, is having a full-blown identity crisis. It’s not that the writing is necessarily bad, or that the premise is flawed. It’s just that these aren’t the Muppets we know. The original Muppet Show was a variety show, which was a huge thing in the 1970s (Laugh-In, The Smothers Brothers, Sonny and Cher, Saturday Night Live). Like many shows of that era, you could watch it with your family even if it wasn’t specifically for kids. I disagree with showrunner Bob Kushell’s perspective that the Muppets have become a kids' product, and the idea to “bring them all the way back to what they were intended to be and then some.” The original Muppet Show was only "adult" in the sense that it was smart, and if the references went over your head, it wasn’t because they were particularly adult, they were just very sharp. The new Muppets lacks that savvy. It adopts the mockumentary style that is now almost passé. It doesn’t trust its audience, although I’m not entirely sure it knows who its audience is.

The lesson for The Muppets to learn is brought to them by the letter S. Sesame Street is designed for children, but it knows those kids and it loves them, and they love it right back. People love shows that respect their intelligence. Why else would Netflix revive the super smart Gilmore Girls and Arrested Development? I doubt that legions of fans will demand more 2 Broke Girls after that atrocity (finally) ends. In the words of Sesame Street, one of these things is not like the others. So here’s a protip, network TV showrunners: Don’t disrespect the brand you’re carrying, and don’t assume we won’t “get it” if you try something clever. Otherwise, we’ll just go to Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime, where our intelligence is, generally, not the punch line.

PHOTO CREDIT: Regis Martin/Getty

In this 2010 interview, Brian Henson spoke to Big Think about his father Jim Henson's legacy 

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Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

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  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

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It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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