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Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street … in different countries?

Professor of Global Affairs and Sociology Tamara Kay, jointly appointed at the University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters and the Keough School of Global Affairs, researched how this cultural marvel was locally adapted across the globe, spawning parrot Abelardo Montoya, a Big Bird equivalent, in the Mexican version, and Yam Monster, the Nigerian version of Cookie Monster. 

Over the last half century, Sesame Workshop (the nonprofit organization that produces Sesame Street) has created local adaptations of Sesame Street around the world with partners in more than a dozen countries. Developed in the years following the launch of President Johnson’s War on Poverty and in the midst of the Civil Rights movement, Sesame Street was born of the desire to educate children using television, with a particular focus on those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As we all know, Sesame Street became a national sensation that grew into the powerhouse franchise of children’s “edutainment.” 

Looking beyond the U.S., though, how would the phenomenon fare? Using other languages and alphabets, Count von Count could certainly explain simple math and Grover could teach children about letters. Even so, some of what makes Sesame Street so relatable in the U.S. is how deeply the show is steeped in U.S. culture. 

Professor of Global Affairs and Sociology Tamara Kay, jointly appointed at the University of Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters and the Keough School of Global Affairs, researched how this cultural marvel was locally adapted across the globe, spawning parrot Abelardo Montoya, a Big Bird equivalent, in the Mexican version, and Yam Monster, the Nigerian version of Cookie Monster. 

Her research paper, “Culture in Transnational Interaction: How Organizational Partners Coproduce Sesame Street” was recently published in the journal “Theory and Society” and provides a framework for how transnational organizational partners or teams can engage in more equitable collaborations as they coproduce a hybrid cultural product together.

Because there is very little research on the process of creating transnational hybrids, Kay’s framework could be valuable to government organizations, NGOs and private companies attempting cross-cultural partnerships. Her research, spanning seven years, took her to Sesame Workshop’s offices in New York, then with New York staff to Mexico, Colombia, Puerto Rico, Israel, Palestine, Jordan and Nigeria. She observed and participated in a variety of meetings, seminars, workshops and training sessions and completed more than 200 hours of interviews with New York staff and partners in other countries. What stood out the most to Kay was how New York staff and partners in individual country teams across the world built relationships, negotiated and managed conflicts. 

“When I started the project, I thought  partners in lower resource countries would want less interaction and more autonomy from New York staff. But the opposite actually was true,” Kay said. “They wanted more feedback, more support. As I observed New York staff and partners around the world interacting in real time to produce a local adaptation of Sesame Street together, I realized  that their interactions were aligning interests, mitigating asymmetrical power dynamics, facilitating mutual learning and building trust. It wasn’t just about what they were creating, but about how they were building relationships to create it together.”  

Kay’s research on Sesame Street is distinctive and valuable because it is one of very few projects that is based on observations of transnational interactions on the ground in real time. The vast majority of research can only offer guesses about why an adaptation mimics or strays from its original. 

“If you as the researcher are not in the room as these negotiations happen, you cannot trace the nature of the interactive process that resulted in an adaptation’s final form,” Kay said. “For example, how McDonald's and its Indian franchisees made decisions together about food options there. But I was sitting in the room, observing the discussions and negotiations among organizational partners in real time that shaped the decisions that were made about Sesame Street adaptations.” 

Kay observed that what it takes to engage in successful coproduction is for both Sesame Workshop and the partner team to set their goals and their non-negotiables, and then discuss these aspects. For the former, “programs have to be educational, utilize a ‘whole child’ curriculum and promote key values of nonviolence, tolerance and respect, equality and inclusion,” Kay said. “In terms of content and form, almost all else is negotiable, including whether it will even be a television program … partners must decide whether they can agree to these terms.” For the latter, the local context is the guiding star; will the program meet local goals and needs, and will they have control over the content? Aligning interests is key at this stage, Kay noted. 

Tamara Kay and a Sesame Workshop staff member
Tamara Kay in Amman, Jordan with Palestinian puppeteer Fadi Alghoul and Haneen from Shira’a Simsim.

As she witnessed at a number of meetings, it’s exactly this give and take and flexibility that makes coproduction possible. Kay’s data demonstrate that “Sesame Workshop is very willing to find agreeable common ground – even on core issues,” she said. “And Sesame Workshop realizes its partners are willing to do the same.” This creates allyship between the teams, which is extremely important as the power dynamic between a team backed by a large, universally known and unquestionably beloved nonprofit and a small team of local experts, is wide. 

“Many transnational projects, from public health and vaccination campaigns to agricultural experiments, fail,” Kay said. “It is often because participants who hold the most power in what is meant to be a collaborative dynamic don’t engage in deep localization of the project that values and prioritizes partners’ knowledge, vision, and decision making from start to finish.”  

The process of constructing value is not always without disagreement or conflict and not all potential partnerships are realized. Kay again stresses the open team conversations and the New York staff’s willingness to truly listen to experts on the local teams. 

The HIV positive character Kami, featured on the South African version of Sesame Street called “Takalani Sesame,” was years in the making and came only after the first season and much criticism from South Africans that the program wasn’t addressing one of the country’s biggest issues: the HIV/AIDS health crisis that left one in ten South African children without a caregiver. Some New York staff were wary because they were not experts in the topic and the South African government’s stance was that HIV did not lead to AIDS. It was the South African team that ultimately convinced many New York-based staff that developing an age-appropriate South African curriculum about HIV/AIDS focused on destigmatization, and managing the grief from the loss of caregivers, was crucial to addressing the health crisis. 

“The more I learned about it and the more devastating the numbers became, the more I realized it just wasn’t even a conversation I had the right to have anymore. It was something we needed to try,” said one of the writers on the New York staff. 

Even after the New York writers agreed to it, there were many contentious meetings with other experts to develop the character who would be the vehicle for the curriculum. Portraying a character with HIV would bear consequences. If an adult actor portrayed someone with HIV, he or she would never act again. If a child who had HIV in real life played the character, he or she would eventually die due to lack of treatment. In fact, at the time, “no child in this country with HIV will survive to seven,” Kay wrote. Other options were explored and dismissed in the context of South African culture or the desire to avoid sugar coating reality. Ultimately, a female monster Muppet named Kami was created, whose name means acceptance in various local languages.

In India, the first foreign country to have a subsidiary and local office, the managing director of Sesame Workshop India, Sashwati Banerjee, and her team developed a plan to create a for-profit franchise of preschools called “Sesame Schools” that would support their nonprofit work. The preexisting Sesame Street television program in India was called “Galli Galli Sim Sim,” and those in the New York office thought the school system should bear the same name. 

The trouble was, Banerjee explained, “that ‘Galli’ in India means — it does not even mean a street — it means literally an alley. Gallis are what is associated with slums in India.” Because middle-class families would be more likely to embrace schools that referenced Sesame Street, the solution in India was a dual brand strategy – branding everything under the umbrella of Sesame Street, including the show “Galli Galli Sim Sim.”

Few other large corporations engage in coproduction the way Sesame Workshop does. “Disney, for example, employs cultural consultants and advisors for its films, including ‘Coco’ and ‘Encanto.’ These films were not co-produced as a transnational team with Mexican and Colombian partners,” Kay wrote. Sesame Workshop transnational collaborations, on the other hand, rely entirely on the model of coproduction to build a hybrid program. 

“My theoretical model shows how teams located in different countries who do not share collective representations are able to create them through transnational interaction by constructing value to align their interests, and exchanging complex cultural knowledge to customize and build alliances together,” Kay wrote. “It is about the coproduction of a cultural object that leads to multiple, different and unique hybrid cultural products. Each program resembles Sesame Street as an exceptionally abstract U.S. cultural product, however each program looks very different and cannot be substituted for another.”

By shifting to analyze the process of transnational coproduction, Kay provides a new framework for understanding the factors that constrain and spark adopters’ resistance to cultural globalization. The Sesame Workshop cases that populate Kay’s framework are good examples of coproduction that could set a standard for creating hybrid products in other critical fields. 

Kay’s framework is novel because most of the existing research fails to analyze the building of collaborative transnational organizational ties, particularly among economic development organizations.

 “It misses the cultural environment in which transnational partnerships are constructed and their impact on outcomes,” Kay said.

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