Legendary children’s TV show Sesame Street was first broadcast in the US some 54 years ago, with its debut episode being transmitted on 10 November 1969. It’s been a staple of the ABC schedule in Australia my entire life. But when did Sesame Street first appear on Australian TV?
The excellent Muppet Wiki has deeply comprehensive coverage of Sesame Street within its 43,000+ articles, including guides to 4,663 individual episodes (59 are deemed officially “missing“) and an entry on the ABC.
However, it doesn’t actually answer that question. As I write this, it just says the show has been on since 1971. We can get more specific than that.
Not to be a tease, here’s the answer:
Here’s a TV guide listing of that very first appearance, courtesy of the Sydney Morning Herald for that day:
No such thing as live breakfast TV in 1971 in Australia – the only thing on prior to Sesame Street was the test pattern, something I recall myself from my early childhood and which shows up in some listings.
Note also that the ABC went back off the air after Sesame Street on some occasions, resuming broadcasts later in the morning.
That basic twice-a-day broadcast pattern continued for years, with the times shuffling slightly, right through until the early 2000s when the ABC launched ABC Kids, its first digital channel, and began taking children’s programming off its main channel. Even now, Sesame Street is broadcast at 9:30am on ABC Kids.
The history begins before January 1971, naturally enough. Sesame Street was an immediate sensation in the US, attracting news coverage never seen before for a children’s show, and broadcasters around the world were quick to take notice.
On 14 May 1970, The Age reported that the ABC looked likely to win the rights to the show in Australia. Channel Seven had also been interested, and managing director Bruce Gyngell had made a bid, but the Ford Foundation grant which initially helped fund Sesame Street forbade commercial TV stations from bidding for the show. (And yes, that’s the same Bruce Gyngell who was the first person to appear on Australian TV back in 1956.)
The ABC indeed won the battle, with The Age reporting on 27 August 1970 that the first season of 130 episodes had been picked up for transmission twice a day beginning in 1970. General manager T.S. Duckmanton said this scheduling would “enable pre-school children to watch the programme in the morning and older children to see it in the late afternoon”, the paper reported. Notice the delay of nearly four months; fast tracking was not a thing back in 1970.
Closer to the show’s debut, The Age also cleared up another programming concern: the 4:30pm repeats would not be allowed to interfere with any Test Cricket broadcast. If there was a clash, the repeat would be at 2:40pm, or just dumped altogether. And indeed, the day Sesame Street debuted in Australia that happened, with a predictable cricket clash at the height of the summer season.
The ABC started right from the beginning, with contemporary news articles referring to “1970 episodes” being broadcast. That means Australian audiences did get to see Season 1 oddities such as Oscar the Grouch with orange fur and Big Bird with a weirdly skimpy number of feathers on his head, before things got more standardised.
An interesting side note: I’ve long known that the Sesame Street recording of Ernie’s ‘Rubber Duckie’ had been a surprisingly big chart hit in Australia, reaching #10.
However, the majority of its 18 weeks of chart activity occurred prior to the show first appearing on Aussie TV screens. It debuted on 5 October 1970, a full three months before Sesame Street could be seen. Weird.
And don’t assume it peaked on the charts once Sesame Street actually began broadcasting. A report from The Age on 22 October 1970 listed it as the second-biggest-seller in Melbourne that week.
And yes, in case anyone’s wondering, I have updated Muppet Wiki’s ABC entry with a brief note on the Australian broadcast debut.
A final and utterly trivial fact that emerged during my research: Sesame Street in Melbourne’s Mount Waverley predates the TV show. Major suburban development was taking place there back in 1955, when you could have acquired your very own Sesame Street residence for just £3,100, as you can see in this advertisement from The Age on 6 August 1955.
For more explorations of Australian TV history, check out my deep dives into the horrors of Kwicky Koala and the full Australian broadcast history of the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special. For more Muppets action, check out my excessively detailed guide to Muppet Race Mania.
Show images from Muppet Wiki. Article captures from Newspapers.com.