Sesame Workshop, the creator of Sesame Street, the popular children’s television show, has some of the best-known and most-loved characters in the U.S. Virtually every child living in America knows of Big Bird, Elmo, Bert and Ernie. But how do you go about taking such a program to India and adapting the Sesame Street brand to the Indian children’s entertainment market? That is the challenge Shari Rosenfeld, vice president of international project management at Sesame Workshop, has been facing. Sesame Workshop introduced the Indian version of Sesame Street — called Galli Galli Sim Sim — into the Indian market in 2006 in partnership with Turner Broadcasting. India Knowledge at Wharton caught up with Rosenfeld in Sesame Workshop’s New York offices soon after she returned from a trip to India.

India Knowledge at Wharton: How would you describe the media landscape for children in India before you arrived, and how is it different now?

Rosenfeld: When we signed the deal about five years ago with Turner Broadcasting, POGO and the Cartoon Network were the only 24/7 children’s terrestrial television channels. There are now eight such channels. In addition, more than 250 cable satellite channels have come up, and the cable satellite audience is growing rapidly.

Part of the challenge we face with Galli Galli Sim Sim is how to be competitive in a highly commercial broadcast environment. The show is doing very well on Doordarshan [India’s state-owned broadcast television network] and is doing less well, from a ratings perspective, on POGO and the Cartoon Network. So we are trying to strike a balance. On the one hand, Doordarshan is our core audience, while POGO and Cartoon Network attract Turner’s core audience. On the other hand, the reality is that the Doordarshan audience is shrinking because cable satellite is growing. So we have to be competitive in that commercial marketplace, because that is just where kids are going to be watching television regardless of where they live or their socioeconomic status.

In 1969, when we launched Sesame Street, the U.S. had no dedicated children’s channel. There were 13 channels in all, and that was it. It took 40 years to get to the point that India has gotten to in five years. This means that in India we have less time to build our brand equity. In the U.S., I can mention Sesame Street to anyone and they know it, and I would say that’s pretty true around the world. In India that happens not to be the case. There was no legacy of Sesame Street broadcast in English or even dubbed into Hindi — it just didn’t exist. When you talk to people who are not part of the global Indian set, they have never heard of Sesame Street. So we had to start at the beginning. There really isn’t educational television, either. We are not used to starting that far back. We haven’t had to do that in very many places in the world.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Given your far-reaching international presence in many Asian markets, the Middle East, Europe and of course, North America, it seems that a launch into India was long overdue. What were the factors that led to this seemingly late launch?

Rosenfeld: We were working on entering India for five years. But we’ve had to do it with a different model. We couldn’t go with a pure public-television focus due to limited public and philanthropic funding.

India Knowledge at Wharton: You have a completely unique set of characters that you have developed for the Indian market. Some marketers talk about the notion of global tribes — that there are real commonalities within similar generations across geographical boundaries. Do you ever see Sesame Workshop using the same cast across the whole globe?

Rosenfeld: Yes, I can see this happening. But we do struggle with this. Bert and Ernie might work well outside the U.S., but we are very sensitive to exporting American culture. We don’t want to take a McDonald’s approach to children’s programming.

India Knowledge at Wharton: How did you go about evaluating the India opportunity? How did you position yourself against other children’s programming?

Rosenfeld: India was very simply a market we had to be in, given its size. It was more a question of “how” than “when.”

We needed to achieve a delicate balance between education and entertainment. This is hard to do for a couple of reasons. One is because we don’t have the same level of brand equity that we enjoy in some markets. We don’t have parents who naturally want their kids to watch Galli Galli Sim Sim. In the U.S., you have parents who grew up on Sesame Street, and want to raise their own kids on Sesame Street. From the sponsorship point of view — and this is critical — all the brand values and equity and trust are of enormous value to a corporate sponsor, which is the financial lifeblood of these projects. In India, we are just establishing that. We don’t have a history to bank on. That makes it more challenging.

What we’re finding through research — and this is not just unique to India, but it’s also the case in some other countries — parents don’t really care if television is educational. They feel as if their kids, particularly the upper-income groups in India, are getting so much education already and they want TV to be entertaining.

India is something of a trailblazer in that we’re very sensitive to issues around ratings. In many markets we have philanthropic funding, and while our funders are interested in impact, they do not really look to see what the week-to-week ratings are. In India, because it’s up to Turner to sell the sponsorship package, they have much more of an advertising model. As a result, they depend upon the ratings to demonstrate value to their advertisers.

India Knowledge at Wharton: You are about to enter your third season in India. As you look back, what do you think has worked well and what hasn’t? What will you change?

Rosenfeld: The music and the concept of teaching through entertainment — those elements have worked incredibly well.

We went to much more of a thematic style from our first season to our second and created a stronger connection between the segments. This addressed the issue of holding the child’s attention from the beginning. When we transitioned from a street scene into an animation scene, children thought that someone had changed the channel because it was like a different show.

We have an hour-long show, but rather than having two- and three-minute segments at a really fast pace, we’ve had about four or five different kinds of segments. And they are each longer, about 10 to 15 minutes each.

Another factor is the enormous diversity in the viewing audience. For example, in terms of our literacy approach, we had these segments on the “akshars” (letters). We even developed a character — based on a Bollywood star — named Akshar Kumar. What that did for kids in the POGO and Cartoon Network viewer audience, who tend to be from high-income families, was to peg the show as being aimed at younger children, and not for them, because they already know their letters and alphabet. We’re not even so sure that doing that is necessarily the most effective way of achieving our literacy goals. Now that we are going into season three, we are re-evaluating how we approach our literacy goals and probably will not do it through letters.

India Knowledge at Wharton: The urban Indian child lives in a very different environment than his or her rural counterpart. Do you find your programming effectively connects with both types of children? If so, what elements allow for this? If not, how will you address this?

Rosenfeld: We don’t have research on rural children yet; all our research has been focused on urban children, and that’s just a cost-per-contact issue. It’s very difficult to do research in rural areas.

One of the things that we do know, though, is that media really cuts across. During my first visit to India, I went into one of the slum areas in Delhi. I had been told there was no television access at all. But if you walk to the slum areas and look into any little doorway, you’ll see 10 kids gathered around a flickering screen and all these satellite dishes sprouting from the roofs. So the whole notion that slums don’t have access [to television] fell by the wayside. I remember going into one of these crèches, and asking kids what their favorite television program was, and it was Tom and Jerry! They’re not watching Doordarshan. They’re watching POGO and the Cartoon Network.

Children’s television, at least what we see around the world, travels. It travels across language, across culture, across so many different kinds of boundaries. I would venture to say that you can have a show that appeals to both demographics — urban and rural. Whether it’s going to educate both kinds of children on needs that are really important to both — that’s a different issue. The real question is, in a country as diverse and vast as India, can one show achieve educational objectives that span the spectrum?

India Knowledge at Wharton: Your 2006 annual report states that the potential for positive change in India is enormous — 128 million children between the ages of two and six live in India and two-thirds of them lack access to early childhood care and education. How many of these children are you reaching through Galli Galli Sim Sim and what impact are you having on them?

Rosenfeld: Data from various sources indicate that Galli Galli Sim Sim has between an estimated 22 million and 40 million regular child viewers aged two to six across India. Some 69% of our audience is aged two to six.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Educational outreach seemed an important part of your launch as a means to effectively reach children in need. What specific programs did this entail and how effective have they been?

Rosenfeld: Sesame Workshop India was established about a year ago, and it was established to be the philanthropic face of the project. We are committed not just to the audience of POGO and Cartoon Network but to all children of India, and certainly rural children. Sesame Workshop India’s mandate is to create off-air experiences for kids, but we are also taking the on-air programs, putting them on DVDs and bringing them through community viewings. We’ve equipped vegetable carts with a generator and a television. We’ve created modules of themed content around particular curriculum goals and we take these carts into slum areas. We’ll do this in the six major cities and then we will be moving into the mini-metros.

India Knowledge at Wharton: You have partnered with Turner Entertainment Networks Asia. Partnering with a production company seems new for Sesame Workshop. What led to this structure?

Rosenfeld: It is an unusual relationship for us because we do not usually have broadcasters at the table. Turner is our broadcast partner through the Cartoon Network and POGO and also the financier of this production, in addition to which they’ve put up some corporate social responsibility funds to help establish the educational outreach initiative to support the broadcast. When we decided to form the partnership, we liked Turner because they had a vision that went beyond entertainment.

India Knowledge at Wharton: How do you measure your success in India?

Rosenfeld: Across three dimensions — reach, impact and sustainability. It needs to be commercially viable and be relevant to kids and deliver on our educational goals.