As Carly Rae Jepsen’s infectious hit “Call Me Maybe” was tearing up the radio charts last summer, the makers of Sesame Street were trying to figure out how to put their own spin on the viral craze. A typical television episode featuring the iconic muppets is filmed six to nine months before it’s broadcast, but the show’s producers knew the pop song would be old news by winter. They needed a way to quickly connect with kids, parents and fans, so they turned to the platform that had first catapulted “Call Me Maybe” to fame: YouTube.
“Sometimes you just have to capitalize on the opportunity,” says Carol-Lynn Parente, the executive producer of Sesame Street. “You ride these waves, and the waves digitally are usually pretty short.”
“Share it Maybe,” which features the always-hungry Cookie Monster on a quest to find his favorite snack, premiered on YouTube in July and currently has more than 13 million hits. The video is part of Sesame Street’s aggressive digital strategy, which includes mobile apps, podcasts, and more than a thousand short clips released on YouTube. Last week Sesame Street’s YouTube channel passed 1 billion views, a feat that fewer than 100 channels have accomplished. It’s both the first nonprofit organization and the first children’s program to reach the milestone. Only three television shows—The Ellen Degeneres Show, Britain’s Got Talent, and The X Factor—have attracted more eyeballs on the video site, according to VidStatsX, a website that gathers data about YouTube.
Sesame Street uploads almost 300 videos to its YouTube channel each year. Most are classic clips from the television program, but three to four projects per year are made specifically for YouTube. “A lot of people use it as a promotional tool, but for us it’s really been a content platform as well,” Parente says.
The straight-to-YouTube shorts feature the long-running themes of the show, which has a history of celebrity guests and pop culture parodies. Both the archival and the original segments have found a larger audience online than they ever could have on PBS. A video featuring folk singer Feist adapting her hit song “1,2,3,4” to help teach children how to count has more than six times the views of that song’s official music video. Will.i.am, India Arie, and a host of other celebrities also star in videos that have tens of millions of views. “Smell Like a Monster,” a parody of Old Spice’s “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” commercial starring Grover, has more than ten million views.
“Any form of quality content from a known brand, when you make it freely available online, will rack up a lot of views,” says Dan Cryan, research director for digital media at IHS Screen Digest. “That’s precisely what Sesame Street is providing.”
Of course the toddlers in Sesame Street’s target demographic don’t know who Feist is and aren’t likely to notice how closely Grover mimics Isaiah Mustafa in the Old Spice bit. But the show’s executives say they’re always aiming to appeal to both kids and adults simultaneously. “We need to engage kids and get them to want to view our educational content, but we also have found that when parents are engaged as well, it really increases the educational impact of our content,” says Terry Fitzpatrick, chief content and distribution officer of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces Sesame Street.
Putting such content in front of adults on a platform as broad as YouTube also helps keep the brand relevant. Fitzpatrick hopes that Millennials who laugh at the Grover “Old Spice” ad in their 20s will be excited to introduce Sesame Street to their kids later in life.
While it seems like having Sesame Street on-demand might undermine the hour-long broadcast program, the proliferation of content online has actually helped the show’s television ratings, at least relative to other kids’ shows. Over the past four seasons, the show has climbed from number 19 to number 13 among children’s shows in the ages 2-5 demographic, according to a company spokeswoman. Currently about 6.2 million people watch some airing of Sesame Street each week.
“I think there was this fear that the digital platforms would cannibalize broadcast,” Parente says. “What we’ve found is more is more. The more they watch the YouTube, they get excited and engaged in your content and your characters and they seek it out wherever they are.”
Other children’s shows have taken a more cautious approach with online video. Disney runs YouTube channels for the Disney Channel and Disney Junior, but they have about 200 million views between them. Nickelodeon, whose parent company Viacom has filed litigation against YouTube in the past, hosts videos of its shows on its own websites and streams some shows on demand to subscribers, similar to HBO Go. These networks are in a constant dance with cable providers to determine their carriage fees, and allowing their most popular properties to proliferate online could potentially undermine their value. As a nonprofit that receives some government funding and doesn’t have to sell ads against its content, Sesame Street is more immune to these pressures. That doesn’t mean it’s financially invincible, though. Sesame Workshop posted operating losses in 2010 and 2011 and laid off 20% of its workforce during the worst of the recession.
Not all of Sesame Street’s online attention has been positive, either. In 2010, when Katy Perry performed a singalong of her hit single “Hot N Cold” with Elmo, parents were shocked at the amount of cleavage she was showing on the kid’s show. Sesame Street abandoned plans to air the clip on TV, but it continues to live on YouTube on Katy Perry’s channel. In November, discussion of Elmo increased tenfold on Twitter, but for all the wrong reasons—his puppeteer, Kevin Clash, was accused of having sex with underage boys and eventually resigned from the show.
Fitzpatrick says dealing with controversies directly has protected Sesame Street from permanent brand tarnishment. “You’re in a conversation with your viewers and users,” he says of the organization’s online presence. “We engage with our audience and listen to what they’re saying and respond to their comments.”
Going forward, Sesame Street’s digital output is likely to grow as it increasingly becomes a multiplatform production. The brand already boasts a broad array of mobile apps, interactive games on its website and weekly free podcasts on iTunes. Now in its 43rd season, one of America’s oldest shows remains surprisingly current, both in terms of content and distribution. “Our goal is always to look at everything that’s out there and figure out how can we put educational content that’s good for parents and children in their hands,” Parente says. “I hope we’ll be on whatever comes out.”