When word spread late last month that public broadcaster NHK would pull the plug on “Sesame Street” after more than 30 years, loyal fans were shocked.
Dozens took immediate action, setting up a Web site as part of efforts to implore NHK to reconsider — something that appears unlikely to happen.
“I’m heartbroken that I won’t be able to watch Bert, my favorite character, on TV anymore,” wrote one person under the alias “Kujira,” or whale. “I don’t want the program to end!”
NHK started broadcasting “Sesame Street” on its educational channel in 1971, about two years after it started in the United States. However, NHK said the program will end with its April 3 broadcast.
Viewer ratings for “Sesame Street” between last April and early March averaged 1.3 percent, lower than the 3 percent to 4 percent garnered by some other NHK programs that focus on English-language study, according to NHK officials.
Spokesman Shunsuke Tokunaga said that while the public broadcaster had hoped to continue the program, Sesame Workshop, the program’s distributor, refused to continue selling the broadcast rights for the English-language version.
Sesame Workshop, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization, reportedly wanted NHK to air a Japanese-language version of “Sesame Street” instead of the English original. But Tokunaga said he could not confirm such reports, and that all he could say was that negotiations between the two sides fell through. Sesame Workshop was not available for comment.
“We had been airing the original version since 1971 so both children and adults could enjoy studying English while experiencing American culture and way of life,” Tokunaga said. “We had no choice but to give up” airing the show altogether as broadcast rights for the English version were no longer available, he added.
Akira Kojima, a retired NHK producer who was involved in the Sesame Street program at the start, said the show played a large role in advancing English-language education in Japan, because few programs at the time gave people the opportunity to listen to real English.
” ‘Sesame Street’ has been a valuable tool for teaching English,” Kojima said, noting that the program has been taken up in several English textbooks in Japan.
NHK initially targeted junior high school students with the show, as that was the age at which Japanese generally began studying English, he said.
But after viewers complained the program was too difficult to understand, NHK began inserting Japanese-language narration into the show in the early 1990s. In 1995, it introduced dual-language broadcasts in English and Japanese.
Perhaps as a result of such measures, over the course of time the show’s core viewer age group became younger.
” ‘Sesame Street’ gained popularity as a children’s program after introducing Japanese language” into the show, Kojima said.
He expressed hope “Sesame Street” will continue to be aired, even by a different channel. At the same time, however, he added that he believes the program should be aired in English.
Private broadcaster TV Tokyo has said it is considering whether to air “Sesame Street” after NHK terminates the show but adds it has yet to decide which version of the program it would use.
“There is a significance in broadcasting Sesame Street in English,” Kojima said. “A Japanese version would be not that much different from other kids’ programs.”