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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 September, 2003, 10:03 GMT 11:03 UK
Is Elmo Bush's secret weapon?
By Ryan Dilley
BBC News Online

Images of heavily-armed Marines patrolling Iraq may not be winning the US many friends in the Islamic world. So it could be time to enlist the soft and fluffy inhabitants of Sesame Street in the battle against anti-Americanism.

Is Sesame Street really brought to you by the letters U, S and A?

The US Army - which partly sponsors the show's makers, the New York-based Children's Television Workshop - certainly loves Sesame Street. Especially its saccharine theme music about everything being "A-OK".

Iraqi prisoners were treated to repeated playings of the ditty at ear-splitting volume by US psychological operations officers intent on encouraging their captives to submit to questioning.

This revelation seems to run contrary to everything the TV show for pre-school children has stood for since its first broadcast in 1969. Also, by bringing Big Bird, Elmo and Mr Snuffleupagus into such disrepute, the US soldiers may have tarnished a more subtle plan hatched by their masters back in Washington.

The programme - which is already aired in more than 120 countries - has been praised by the US State Department officials who have been set the task of turning the tide of anti-Americanism.

Cookie Monster
Behave son, or US paratroopers may come next
Charlotte Beers, the former ad executive made undersecretary of State for public diplomacy in 2001, warned a Senate committee that the "people we need to talk to do not even know the basics about us. They are taught to distrust our every motive. Such distortions, married to a lack of knowledge, is a deadly cocktail. Engaging, teaching common values are preventive medicine".

But how to administer this medicine, and even help it down with a spoonful of sugar? Ms Beers says there is "an army willing to be signed up to engage the world on behalf of the United States".

And in the vanguard of this army? Bert, Ernie and Oscar the Grouch.

The undersecretary said she was "dazzled" by a co-production of Sesame Street broadcast in Egypt since 2000. "The children are glued to the set. They are learning English, they are learning about American values."

The government's Agency for International Development (USAID) is now giving $6.26m for Sesame Street to produce a show for viewers in Bangladesh - a nation with a considerable Muslim population.

One unnamed official told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that the project is "aiming to promote greater understanding of American morality and culture".

1972: Vila Sesamo, Brazil
1973: Sesamstrasse, Germany
1978: 1, rue Sesame, France
1996: Ulitsa Sezam, Russia
1998: Rechov Sumsum Shara'a Simsim, Israel and Palestinian Territories
2000: Takalani Sesame, South Africa
Certainly, the show seems not to have shied away from promoting values which typify the US, such as capitalism.

The cute, squeaky-voiced puppet Elmo has just been sponsored by Wall Street firm Merrill Lynch to explain business to American pre-schoolers. And in Russia's Ulitsa Sezam, a storyline about a lemonade stall has been included to show, that in a nation where many people suspect all businesses of corruption, someone "can make a profit and be a nice person".

However, the Children's Television Workshop has told BBC News Online that it does not accept that it is an exporter of so-called American values. Even a policy for foreign licensing decided back in 1969 stipulated that non-US versions of the show reflect the morals and traditions of the host nation.

"We don't set out in any way to push American or western values. That's not our mission at all," says Beatrice Chow, spokeswoman for Sesame Street's foreign co-productions.

"There are universal values that we encourage, such as sharing, co-operation, respect and understanding. But we see what the needs are of the specific country where the show is being broadcast - such as in South Africa where we introduced an HIV-positive character because of the Aids problem there."

Muppets from the Israeli/Palestinian Sesame Street
If Arab and Jewish Muppets can live together...
Indeed, the Muppet character Kami - while enthusiastically received in Takalani Sesame - was seen as so offending American morals that a group of influential Republican politicians issued a letter calling for Sesame Street not to introduce a similar storyline to its domestic shows.

In its attempts to promote what it calls "universal values", Sesame Street has also encouraged Egyptian girls to be more ambitious with the inclusion of Muppet Khokha (Peach) who wants to be an astronaut or a doctor. This empowering of Egyptian women directly reflects policies agreed with the Cairo government.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, Sesame Street has tried to tackle even thornier regional issues.

Israeli and Palestinian programme makers have tried to combat the negative stereotypes by writing sequences which combine both Jewish and Arab Muppets.

The current intifada has at times interrupted production and seen the show's ambitions scaled down - having Muppets from both communities living on the same street seems utterly ridiculous, even to pre-school children.

However, in the short time the original show, Rechov Sumsum/Shara'a Simsim, was broadcast, it had positive effects on its young viewers.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on Sesame Street
Annan joins nations united on one street
Professor Nathan Fox, of Maryland University, says Palestinian children particularly were seen to benefit from seeing positive images of their culture on the screen.

Though "good science" was difficult under the circumstances, Professor Fox says he expects that had he had longer to conduct research he would have revealed other positive effects.

He says Sesame Street "may not change entrenched cultural stereotypes", but by showing scenarios of sharing and interaction, it may prevent these stereotypes being acted out by viewers when they meet their counterparts.

This may give added impetus to projects planned for Afghanistan and Northern Ireland and one already under way in Kosovo.

So perhaps the US government officials are mistaking the generous spirit and scrupulous fairness of Big Bird as exclusively American virtues.

Melanie Killen, a colleague of Professor Fox, recently found that children around the world share a body of values which cut across cultures. "That has surprised many people," says Professor Fox.

When it comes to sharing, equality and fairness, it seems we're all on the same side of the street.

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