At long last, "Sesame Street" is tackling the sticky subject of divorce -- with baby steps.
A new "Sesame Street" video showing Muppet Abby Cadabby talk about her parents' divorce debuted this week online. But Sesame has no plans to air it on TV.
"Our strategy is much more effective when we do a targeted initiative," said Jeanette Betancourt, vice president for outreach and educational practices at Sesame Workshop, the non-profit group behind public television's popular children's show. "When we're creating something for TV programming, it's for all children. Those children who are not directly impacted [by divorce] start to wonder, 'Are my parents getting a divorce?'"
If Sesame seems gun-shy about the Big D, that's because it is.
The show came close to introducing its young TV audience to divorce in 1992. That segment depicted Snuffleupagus' parents in the midst of splitting up, with Snuffy upset and unsure about whose cave he would live in.
The episode bombed in front of a preschool-aged focus group, resulting in confusion and tears. "Sesame Street" scrapped it and steered clear of divorce for the next two decades.
"They had tried this once before and they knew they had failed at it; that made them really reluctant to come back to this topic," said Professor Robert Hughes Jr., head of Human and Community Development at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Ignoring the topic, of course, doesn't make it go away.
"This is still a major feature in family life, happening to, we think, over a million children every year despite the fact that the divorce rate on average has been going down," Hughes said. He's one of four advisers who worked with Sesame to create its new multimedia package, "Little Children, Big Challenges: Divorce."
Aimed at kids ages 2 to 8 years old, the resource kit includes testimonials from real children, a story book about living in two homes and a parent/caregiver guide. There's even an app for that: the Sesame Street Divorce App. All the materials are available online at sesamestreet.org/divorce, where you'll also find "Sesame's" Abby video. It shows the 3-year-old fairy-in-training drawing a picture of her two homes, one where she lives with Mommy, the other with Daddy. With the help of longtime "Sesame Street" denizen Gordon, Abby explains divorce to her Muppet buddies and let's them know her parents still love her and she still loves them.
Unlike the ill-fated Snuffy segment, Abby has clearly adjusted to her new life and seems at peace with it. Perhaps too at peace for Elizabeth Marquardt, director of the socially conservative Center for Marriage and Families at the Institute for American Values.
"Maybe a better idea would be to make a documentary about all those kids crying the first time around and show it to parents considering a divorce," Marquardt blogged at FamilyScholars.org.
Hughes defended Sesame's approach, saying it provides some much-needed tools for parents and children. It might even pave the way for divorce to finally find a home on "Sesame Street."
"I hope that as this is out there and they begin to see what I think will be really positive reactions, they'll think about where and how to include this in the line-up."