Which TV show has had the most influence on our society? When I ponder that question, the usual suspects leap to mind. There’s “Star Trek,” with its vision of a unified Earth, its forward-thinking technology, and its massive costumes-‘n’-conventions cult following. Or perhaps it would be “I Love Lucy,” which not only perfected the sitcom format, luring Americans into making TV watching a regular habit, but also celebrated the fact that a woman could be clever and free-spirited. Then there’s “M*A*S*H,” which gave voice to the nation’s awkward confession that war is not always a grand and noble thing, or “The Simpsons,” a worldwide ambassador of modern American culture. (If that doesn’t seem scary, think about it for a while.)
All of these choices seemed far too obvious, so I ground my mental gears a little harder. What most influenced me? Nature shows, no question. Jacques Cousteau, Richard Attenborough, and Steve Irwin inspired me to go fling myself out into vast wilderness, and the wonderful documentaries that Animal Planet used to air taught me more about zoology than all of my years in school. There is no one show that stands out among the others, yet all of them together surely have enriched our society beyond measure, allowing millions a glimpse of the secret ecological multiverses that intertwine with our own, and raising awareness about the importance of conservation.
“Nature shows” isn’t really an answer to the question. I’ll go in a different direction. The single most influential show of contemporary culture? Sesame Street.
What person born after 1969 has never seen an episode? In 1996 researchers found that about 95% Americans had seen the show before the age of three, while a 2006 document by the US Department of State estimated that nearly 75 million Americans grew up watching it regularly. But Sesame Street isn’t confined to the United States. It broadcasts in twenty versions across 120 countries under such names as "Galli Galli Sim Sim" (India), "Sippuray Sumsum" (Israel), and "Play With Me Sesame" (UK).
Quiz yourself. Do you know the rest of the line, “Sunny days, sweeping the clouds away…?” Can you count to twelve without slipping into the song, “One-two-three, four, five…” Can you name more than ten characters? I haven’t seen the show for years, yet it is permanently embedded into my psyche. What would the path of my education look like if it hadn’t first been inspired by the number and letter of the day?
If you look at a “Top 50” list of influential TV shows, you’ll see that they are usually measured by how much they impact adults, not children. But adults already have their houses constructed, or at least most of the walls put up. Sesame Street affects children as they’re laying their foundations, helping them build such skills as literacy, tolerance, inquisitiveness, and cooperation. And it’s been doing it for over forty years.
Can any other TV show come close?