'Sesame Street' Ready to Return to China

After a 13-year absence, Big Bird strides back onto Chinese TV screens.

BEIJING -- Twenty-seven years after Big Bird first landed in China and 13 years since the U.S. non-profit Sesame Workshop had a presence on Chinese TV, a short, localized, Mandarin-language version of its flagship show Sesame Street will premiere in Shanghai on Dec. 22.

A lot has changed in the media since the one-off movie Big Bird in China first brought Chinese and Western television together in 1983. The eight-foot-tall yellow bird returned when General Electric sponsored Sesame Street on Shanghai TV from 1998-2001, but his nest didn’t last in a media landscape where regulators held greater sway than consumers.

While Viacom's Nickelodeon has managed to make Spongebob Squarepants among the top TV shows for kids in China, government regulations have in recent years made it difficult for other imported kids’ programming to reach what 2008 data from Unicef suggests is the potential target audience of more than 87 million Chinese viewers under the age of five.

Although those kids’ parents, especially those in China’s swelling middle-class, increasingly are voting with their wallets -- and with their television remote controls -- Beijing’s regulators continue to restrict foreign participation in the country’s historically staid homegrown media sector. When it comes to kids’ programming, the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television has been known to promote local companies with subsidies and bar imported cartoons from prime time TV.

But Sesame Street is different from offerings from entertainment-focused companies, says Gary Knell, CEO of the New York City-based Sesame Workshop. “Selling Sesame Street the idea into China wasn’t the hard part since now all the people in offices in China are of the generation that knows who we are: educators who use the media to teach kids,” Knell told The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday in Beijing. “The challenge was to find a sustainable strategy that will keep Sesame Street on the air in China for years to come.”

Key to Sesame Street’s Chinese relaunch was working with Ye Chao, the deputy general manager of Toonmax Media, the youth-oriented satellite channel owned by the Shanghai Media Group, China’s No. 2 media conglomerate after state-run China Central Television. Ye worked on the original Chinese Sesame Street, known, in literal translation, as Zhima Jie. “This is a Chinese-made show. We listened to what they wanted and worked to create a local show,” Knell said.

With sponsors in drug makers Merck and Schering-Plough’s global health care company MSD, 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.

The new Chinese Sesame Street won’t hit Toonmax – and its 10-province footprint and 100 million viewers – until sometime in the first half of 2011, according to Shirley Yi Zhu, a Sesame Workshop project director, with Knell adding: “After that, we’re working on syndication,” and using the consulting services of Beijing-based China Media Monitor Intelligence, he said.

In the new show, set to air each day at 5:30 pm, a new, Chinese Sesame Street character—a martial arts expert Muppet called Tiger Lily--will join Big Bird and Elmo to teach kids to search for answers to basic questions about the world around them such as: Why do birds fly? Why are polar bears white?

Sesame Street teaches kids about HIV/AIDS in South Africa and has taught American kids of Iraq war veterans how to deal with their parents’ injuries. In China, Sesame will work with the China Youth Development Foundation to promote emergency preparedness.

“When we saw pictures of the tragic earthquake here, we knew we had to do something,” Knell said, noting that Sesame’s recent kid-focused recovery efforts in earthquake-stricken Haiti and Chile prepared the non-profit to help Chinese families still affected by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed 70,000 Chinese and left at least 4.8 million homeless. 

Working with the CYDF, Sesame will distribute 1,000 printed Chinese-language educational kits in 2011, stressing, for instance, the importance of teaching kids their names and their parents’ names in case they’re separated in an emergency. Later on, Sesame and the CYDF will distribute 75,000 Chinese DVDs with similar lessons.

Following the new TV show and Sesame’s corporate social responsibility outreach, Sesame Workshop also expects to be able to make money to sustain its educational push in China through the sale of Big Bird and Elmo plush toys costing about $30 (200 yuan) each.

“It’s not cheap, but we’re working with the right partners to ensure that our products maintain their quality,” said Maura Regan, Sesame Workshop’s svp and general manager for global consumer products. From Jan. 1, global toy maker Hasbro will work to represent Sesame’s toy assets in China. The partners expect to have Sesame-branded toys on the shelves of Chinese Wal-Mart, Carrefour and some mom and pop outfits by the third quarter of 2011. 

“We’re leading our strategy with content, but once we’ve created an emotional bond with Chinese kids, we can layer in the products business,” Regan said.

Sesame’s latest effort to reach China’s kids follows a push at the 2010 Shanghai Expo, where Big Bird joined expo mascot Haibao and the Sesame Street gang to give a twice-daily Magic Map Show with sponsorship from German chemicals maker BASF.