The last time Big Bird made an appearance in China, most Beijingers were still riding bikes and burning coal cakes for heat in the winter. Now, nearly 30 years later, the towering yellow-feathered icon and his anthropomorphic muppet buddies are gearing up for a new putonghua version of Sesame Street, the long-running PBS (America’s Public Broadcasting System) children’s show known for teaching generations of kids around the world the basics of reading and writing.
According to this Hollywood Reporter/Reuters report: "52 11-minute Chinese episodes of ‘Sesame Street: Big Bird Looks at the World’ (Zhima Jie: Da Niao Kan Shijie) will promote scientific discovery to watchers of SMG’s kids’ channel Haha TV, which reaches Shanghai’s population of roughly 18.5 million," with the first episode premiering in Shanghai on December 22. Beijing viewers will have to wait until some time next year, when the show appears on Toonmax, a station airing in 10 provinces nationwide.
Despite never having really been broadcast here in China (save for a 1998-2001 run of the American series on Shanghai TV underwritten by GE), Sesame Street characters already enjoy a certain cultural cache here in China much like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck did back before the reform and opening up period of the early 1980s. This has been partly spurred on by the availability of pirated DVDs featuring the likes of Elmo and Friends, Kermit and even the tangentially related Muppet Movies in China’s major cities and clips on local video sharing sites like Youku.
With a subsidiary company of medical mammoth Merck already lined up as a sponsor, the new Chinese version will undoubtedly be a cash cow for its broadcaster, Shanghai based HaHa TV.
And perhaps rightfully so. As a concept, Sesame Street is great and I’m still very much a fan of the old-school episodes I watched religiously as toddler in the States (you can’t beat the Pointer Sisters singing that Pinball Number song or the time Stevie Wonder appeared in the show performing songs from "Inner Visions"). But I’ve always felt the show lost something when Jim Henson passed away and the "Tickle-Me-Elmo Era" kicked in in the early 90s – perhaps because I had already grown up to be a jaded Gen-X’er.
Here’s hoping the Shanghai version will strike a healthy balance between the educational and commercial and delight a new generation of Chinese kids like it did for me back in the day.
(But something tells me not to hold my breath)