Television

'Culturally, linguistically diverse India is a test case for us' : Sesame Workshop India ED Sashwati Banerjee

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 For both Sesame Workshop and its newly-appointed executive director for Indian operations, Sashwati Banerjee, India is a big challenge. The US-based Sesame Workshop might have revolutionized pre-school education through various initiatives, including the path-breaking TV show Sesame Street, but replicating a global model here will be a tough task.

Rather, if communications expert Banerjee is to be believed, Sesame Workshop is adopting an entirely new game plan for India, apart from innovating on some aspects that incorporate what it has done in other parts of the globe. She agrees that India may become the incubator for a model that could be replicated elsewhere too.

Founded in 1968, Sesame Workshop changed television forever with the legendary Sesame Street. Today, the Workshop continues to innovate on behalf of children in 120 countries, using its proprietary research methodology to ensure its programmes and products are engaging and enriching.

For Banerjee, who's dabbled in various assignments from India to Hong Kong to the US, the changeover to children's education from healthcare communications is a step that was not taken easily. But after initial doubts were cleared by Sesame Workshop CEO Gary Knell, it has been hectic work for the lady who grew up and studied in Delhi, but spent quite a few years in Hong Kong doing "this and that", as she would modestly say.

In this conversation with Indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra, Banerjee spells out her priorities and gives a glimpse into Workshop's plans for India. She also cribs a bit on procedural delays and lack of readily available comprehensive data/research on government-aided education initiatives and child behaviour.

Excerpts:

What's the aim of setting up Sesame Workshop India?

Sesame Workshop India would primarily be the outreach arm to promote early childhood initiative and the educational curriculum of Galli Galli Sim Sim (the Indian version of Sesame Street) through a multi media platform, especially to children who are most in need or underserved. The educational curriculum of Galli Galli… has been designed by Indian educators, researchers and writers keeping in mind India's cultural and social diversity and needs.

How will that be done?

What Sesame Workshop really brings to the table is technical knowledge and expertise in early childhood education and development. These are the two broad areas we are working with. How will it go about doing it? One arm of the education initiative is the television show Galli Galli… which is going to be broadcast on Cartoon Network, Pogo and (terrestrial broadcaster) Doordarshan. The other aspect of the initiative is to see how we can extend and reinforce that learning through a variety of other activities with the help of technology to bridge the digital divide.

The target audience is children aged between two to six years and their caregivers, which include parents and teachers using educational materials that are fun and make learning engaging "because all children deserve a chance to dream and discover, to understand the world and their place in it, to reach their highest potential…"

We would be working with other organizations that are already active in this field and our mandate is to help them develop programmes that will take such initiatives forward.

'Seed Funding has been provided by Turner India'

How would Sesame Workshop leverage Galli Galli…?

Television is just one of the ways in which the educational curriculum will be delivered is television. Sesame Workshop India will help to deliver Galli Galli... across other mediums – from print, training, interpersonal communication to high technology initiatives like the internet. While the television series is expected to reach audiences across India, there is still a large population who have limited or no access to television. It is through Sesame Workshop India's outreach efforts that this population will be reached.

Moreover, research has shown that children who watch Sesame Street or its various local versions in countries round the globe are better prepared for school in terms of cognitive learning and the show has helped prevent children from dropping out of school.

When is Galli Galli Sim Sim likely to make its debut on Cartoon Network and Pogo?

Galli Galli Sim Sim will premiere on Cartoon Network in mid-August after which it will be aired on Pogo. But for those broadcasting details, Turner is best placed to provide more information.

How is Sesame Workshop funding its initiatives in India?

Seed Funding has been provided by Turner India (a Time Warner company). Sesame Workshop India, like any other not-for-profit organization, will raise funds to support its activities in India.

When Indiantelevision.com spoke to Sesame CEO Gary Knell, he had said corporate houses too would be roped in for funding activities. Has any development taken place in this regard?

Those things would take place after we set up shop formally and get our basic act in place. Presently, we are in the process of getting our clearances from various government agencies.

However, we'd like to tap big corporate houses for funds as part of a corporate's social responsibilities. There are quite a few business houses that are involved in educational initiatives and we'll look at partnering with them in various ways.

What role would the Indian government play in Sesame's scheme of things? What are those few things that Sesame must consider as it goes forward?

In order to understand the critical priorities of the Indian government – where Sesame Workshop can collaborate, and highlight areas of concern – Sesame Workshop had organized a workshop that brought together a cross-section of relevant stakeholders in New Delhi in early December 2005.

Briefly, the discussions were participative and each government department and agency, professional educational bodies, and the voluntary sector brought their own set of issues to the fore providing for comprehensive inputs towards future planning and strategy. In fact, there was a consensus around the fact that the media can help overcome constraints posed by the existing administrative structures across the country, which are highly segmented.

We are hoping to work with diverse partners, develop and create innovative materials and build capacity at all levels. Our vision is to reach as many children as possible in India by partnering with government's Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan or Universal Education programme with material that will make learning joyful and help the government in reaching its educational objectives.

Considering Turner International India had provided the money for a corpus, what would be its role?

Turner is the TV series' co-producer and distributor of Galli Galli Sim Sim. Together, Sesame Workshop and Turner are committed to making Galli Galli Sim Sim a break-through educational programme and brand. Sesame and Turner are working closely to ensure that India's children will have access to this new show and its educational messages, and are actively pursuing promoting the show on multiple platforms across India.

Is the telecast deal with Turner exclusive or can it be done with other broadcasters in other Indian languages too?

As far as the agreement with Turner is concerned, all I can say is that it's for at least five years or five seasons of Galli, Galli… I cannot hand out any financial details or presently comment on the fact whether we can work with other broadcasters or not.

Generally, Sesame Workshop works with the public service broadcaster of the country concerned, but there had been some initial problems with Doordarshan, which, I am told, have been sorted out now by Turner India.

India is a vast country and getting educational initiatives in all the local languages would not be possible. But we would certainly be exploring at least one South Indian language, if not two, apart from Hindi. The details haven't yet been worked out and would be done in consultation with Turner.

Will the Indian ops undertake merchandising activities too?

We are focusing on the launch of the show and have nothing to announce at the moment.

How are such merchandising activities done elsewhere in the world?

Sesame Workshop operates in 120 different countries. The modus operandi varies from country to country and partner to partner.

How is the revenue generated from such activities used and what will be the game plan for India?

Like I said, Sesame Workshop is a not-for-profit organization. Any revenue generated through merchandising or licensing go towards providing quality early childhood education and development around the world – to those who are most in need.

How important is India as a market for Sesame?

Of the 103 million children aged 2-6 years, over 35 per cent in rural areas and 48 per cent in urban areas can't access Early Childhood Care and Education. Roughly 100 million live in urban slums alone, which have no access to Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) that is the primary vehicle for Early Childhood Care and Education in India.

While Early Childhood Care and Education is definitely a felt need and lot of efforts have been put in by the government and private institutions, other issues like malnutrition and child heath take precedence for ICDS. Demand has never been an issue in education. Supply is what we need to focus on.

Does Sesame Workshop feel that the Indian regulatory environment requires too many procedural clearances impeding quick start of operations?

Actually, the Indian regulatory environment has been extremely supportive for us. We have had representation from the government and other public education bodies right from conceptualization to production of Galli Galli Sim Sim, which is being produced for Turner by Miditech. We work closely with Indian educators to arrive at the educational curriculum that looks at 'whole child' approach and is very much in line with the education policy of this country.

However, India is a test case for Sesame Workshop as it is uniquely ahead of most developing countries in terms of market and economy and the size of population. More importantly, India is not a donor funded country as sizeable infrastructure is being built by Indians. Then in India, we are not working primarily with the terrestrial broadcaster, unlike in other countries. We do hope that the time block on DD will continue airing Galli Galli… for a long time to come.

I don't see Galli Galli… broadcasting in 22 Indian languages. What we can do is to take the essence of educational initiatives and roll it out in outreach that can happen in multiple languages.

In those terms, India is a learning experience for Sesame to see what kind of partnerships work best and how sustainable models can be built up for impact in a country that is culturally and linguistically diverse.

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