From “Sesame Street” to “Sesamstrasse”: Journey to Prix Jeunesse 2012

Prix Jeunesse (PJ) is a biannual international children’s TV festival held in Munich honoring the most innovative, engaging, and enriching kids’ programs worldwide.  Held since 1964, with a rich and fascinating history, the festival covers a wide swath of TV shows for children ages 0-15, as well as both fiction and non-fiction genres.  Its partner organizations include UNESCO, UNICEF, and the American Center for Children and Media.

What makes PJ particularly unique as a contest is that the winners are decided upon by all the participants (including an international youth jury.)  The deliberation process involves the producers, researchers, and executives watching the entries simultaneously, and then breaking off into small discussion groups.  This exchange uncovers diverse perspectives on the same material, mutual respect, and greater understanding of local and cultural production needs.

In a way, I’ve wanted to attend PJ since 1989.  Granted, I was only 6 years old in 1989, and didn’t actually know then that PJ existed per se.  But that year, I learned something life-altering from Sesame Street: 20 Years and Still Counting, a Bill Cosby-hosted TV special that aired on NBC in the US.  (Bit of trivia: Sesame Street won first prize at the fourth PJ, sending ripples through the international television sector and sparking an array of Sesame Street international co-productions.  It should be noted that PJ, refreshingly, is most definitely not a market, like Sundance or MIPCOM.)

Sesamstrasse cookies I spotted in the Bremen Hauptbahnhof (train station).

I discovered through this moment in the 20 Years and Still Counting special (link below) that people around the world made “same but different” versions of Sesame Street – with “same but different” Muppets, theme songs, and even titles for the show itself (names like Sesamstrasse in Germany and Barrio Sesamo in Spain).

Ever since watching that clip (and re-watching my VHS copy in subsequent years), I’ve been curious about which TV shows other children around the world watch, and what they learn from those locally-produced shows.  When I interned in the domestic research department of Sesame Workshop the summer after sophomore year of college, I would sneak in lunchtime breaks to the international research team’s video library/closet.  My undergraduate thesis at Northwestern ended up being a twist on studying international children’s TV, analyzing about 50 different episodes of US children’s TV to investigate how non-US citizens were presented.  (In case you were curious, lots of “funny foreign exchange students” and a Cold War hold-over of Central/Eastern European villains.)

Twenty years after that 1989Sesame Street special (plus another 3 – if you’re “still counting” – ha!), I made it all the way to PJ.  It was a dream come true to experience and to meet people from around the world, from England to East Timor, with such similar interests and passions.

It was extra special to attend PJ having made my own contribution to the festival.  I co-presented a study for which I did field work, on what children around the world learn from television, with Prix Jeunesse’s sister organization, the International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television (IZI).  As the legendary Sesame Street-creator Joan Ganz Cooney said, “It’s not whether children learn from television – it’s what children learn from television, because everything children see on television is teaching them something.”  Here’s a glimpse at what our results looked like:

A girl (10 years, USA) learned from Ni Hao, Kai-lan: “I learned how to speak Chinese like Ye-Yue which means grandpa and Ni-Hao which means Hi.” (I got a special kick out of this response since I worked on Ni Hao, Kai-lan.)

A girl (10 years, UK) learned from The Simpsons: “That milk makes very strong and helps you grow faster.”

A girl (10 years, Cuba) learned from Hello Kitty: “One learns to give all the love and affection to friends.”

More later on what I myself learned from watching TV at Prix Jeunesse, my favorite programs, and PJ’s relevance to my other areas of research.

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