CBC Sesame Street: A Description and Discussion of Issues

Richard F. Lewis (University of Windsor)

The Children's Television Workshop (CTW) used powerful formal features and solid research to create Sesame Street, a magazine-format television program for pre-schoolers in 1969. In 1972, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a modified version of the program across Canada (Lavoie, 1986). This paper describes the process of producing the Canadian version, describes major Canadian goals, and discusses issues related to the production of the program.

The Reasons for Modifying Sesame Street

Sesame Street's success in entertaining and teaching young children might make a strong case for simply airing the program in Canada without modification. The segments produced by CTW were systematically planned, meticulously produced, thoroughly evaluated, and then modified so that they were likely to appeal to the intended audience. Sesame Street, however, uses a medium which assails more of our senses than any other. In addition to teaching children how to count, recognize letters, and other useful skills, Sesame Street achieves its objectives against a social, cultural, and geographic background. Few Sesame Street segments are shot against a neutral background in a studio. Many live segments are shot in inner-city neighbourhoods in the United States reflecting the racial composition, the cultural values, the accents, houses, the shooting locales, and even the weather in the United States.

Comstock (1975) and Hawkins & Pingree (1981) suggested that where the environment does not contain information about a topic, television provides such a picture. Sesame Street, as a show designated for Canadian preschoolers who may not have seen locations in Canada outside their locality, needed to reflect the Canadian cultural reality. The CBC decided not to air the U.S. program in its entirety. Instead, the decision was made to edit the U.S. version and add Canadian material. The decision was based on Canada's desire to expose viewers to French rather than Spanish and on the necessity to reflect a different society. While the U.S. has Black and Hispanic minorities, these two groups, while present in Canada, do not form large minorities. The principle of adding Canadian content allowed writers, music composers, performers, animators, directors, and producers to practise their crafts on a show which reaches 90% of its potential audience daily. This decision to adapt Sesame Street to the Canadian culture was reached in 1970; later it would be reinforced by MacBride et al. (1980) who indicated that the cultural identity of every country had to be preserved while promoting knowledge of other cultures.

CBC Sesame Street

Sesame Street has aired daily in the 11 a.m. to noon time slot for almost 20 years on all owned-and-operated CBC stations and most affiliated stations. Each year, the previous year's production is purchased from the Children's Television Workshop in New York. In Winnipeg, an editor removes content which is unnecessary in Canada, such as references to American coins, the U.S. flag, U.S. national holidays, etc. All segments containing Spanish are deleted along with alphabet segments because they use the American pronunciation (zee) of the letter Z. Programs are then assembled using the original U.S. material and Canadian content. The Canadian content forms between 12 and 20 minutes of each program.

A CBC Sesame Street program, aired September 20, 1988, contained 46 segments, 23 Canadian and 23 from CTW in New York. Of all segments 25 were animated, 7 were live, 10 included muppets, and 4 contained combinations. Of the 23 Canadian segments, 14 were animated, 6 were live, 2 included muppets, and 1 had animation, and muppets. For the U.S. segments in the program, 11 were animated, 1 was live, 8 included muppets, and the other 3 contained combinations. Given the Canadian goals of showing Canada to Canadians, it is not surprising that the live segments were Canadian. Live action allows the producer to use Canadian homes, neighbourhoods, and cities as backdrops for the main action.

Another program which aired on May 11, 1991, contained 40 segments; 25 U.S. and 15 Canadian. Sixteen segments used animation (nine Canadian and seven U.S.). Muppets were presented in eight U.S. segments and four Canadian segments. The show contained four U.S. and two Canadian segments using actors. Canadian segments occupied 25% of the available time; U.S. segments the other 75%. Muppet or muppet-plus-live-people segments from the U.S. aired for over half the program. Canadian muppet segments were on for five minutes. The program also included just over six minutes of Canadian animation and five minutes of U.S. animation.

There are some interesting trends over the three-year period when these two shows were monitored. For these two programs, the Canadian share of segments appears to have declined from 50% of the segments in 1988 to under 40% in 1991. In 1988, opportunities to show Canada were available in six segments. In the 1991 show, only two live segments were available, although it is possible that the four Canadian muppet segments could show Canada. This rough comparison may reflect the budget cuts made by CBC. Live segments, are the most costly to produce (when compared to animation or muppet segments). As budget cuts continue, the effects on the program may be a reduced Canadian presence and more animated or muppet segments.

The Production Process in Canada

CBC Sesame Street has retained parts of the model of CTW when producing segments, i.e., clear goals, attention to meticulous production, research, and evaluation. The CBC has an Advisory Committee of Canadian experts who assist in the setting and selection of goals and in the evaluation process at various stages of production. Every Sesame Street segment must be based on a behaviourally-stated goal (CBC Sesame Street, 1991). In Canada, the goals deal with the following areas: #I. The Child and His/Her World. #II. Symbolic Representation. #III. Cognitive Organization. #IV. Bilingual Goals. #V. Canadian Children. #VI. Native Culture and Heritage. Each of these large goal areas is subdivided into precise goals on which each segment is based. The first three goal areas were adapted from the Children's Television Workshop Goals (Sesame Street Research, 1988). The three last goals are purely Canadian. At planning meetings, producers are encouraged to produce segments which meet several goals, e.g., counting and French numbers.

The first goal area deals with self, the child and his/her powers, pre-science goals, emotions, social units, social groups and institutions, social interactions, conflict resolution, entering social groups, the man-made environment, the natural environment, and quality of the environment. The symbolic representation goals deal with pre-reading, writing, vocabulary, numbers, and geometric forms. The cognitive organization goals deal with perceptual discrimination, relational concepts, and classifying. The purely Canadian goals will be described in more detail below.

With input from the Advisory Committee, the program's executive producer decides the season's priorities and commissions writers to prepare scripts for proposed segments. After scripts are scrutinized by production staff and selected experts, production teams in seven cities produce 100-150 segments each year. Each segment lasts between six seconds and three minutes (Caron-Bouchard & Bouchard, 1982). Some segments are animated, some are live. Most segments are filmed although a small number are videotaped. Segments include location shooting and studio shooting. The program uses all types of animation (cell, clay, beads, sand, cut-outs, puppets) and combination segments incorporating both live and animated footage. Almost all segments feature children. All segments are set to original music, composed, and performed in Canada.

The Canadian Goals of CBC Sesame Street

The Teaching of French Language and Culture

Bilingualism and bilculturalism have been important goals of CBC Sesame Street. Beginning in the first production year, segments containing Spanish were deleted from the U.S. version and replaced by segments containing French. The bilingual goals include the familiarization of the English-speaking child with words, phrases, and French conversations. The bicultural goal seeks to familiarize the non-French-speaking child with French-Canadian culture especially its customs, geography, art forms, songs, theatre, dance, and crafts. Introducing French-Canadian performers is a part of that goal.

The goal of introducing French words, phrases, and French conversations to children has been accomplished using a range of formats. Some segments present a French word or phrase which is linked to appropriate visuals. In some cases, the word is presented once; in others, several presentations occur. In some segments, several examples of the word being communicated are given. For instance, a presentation of the French word for glass might be linked to several types of glasses. Segments dealing with concrete objects are easy to produce. However, segments which deal with action verbs have been more problematic. Often the action verb can be confused with the objects presented.

Bilingual segments present English and French words or phrases either as direct translations of each other or as complementary phrases. The type of segment seems to dictate the format. In another format, one language is used as a question and the other is used as the answer. A recent segment introducing "Dans ma poche" (In my pocket) asked "Where 'ya going to put it?" The French answer was "Dans ma poche." Strong visuals illustrate the questions and the answer so that the child will make the link between the words and the visuals.

In a relatively new format, the child is told that a word is "French" for a certain English word. In previous formats, the child may have been unaware that a particular word was a French word and may have assumed that an object merely had two names. In the cueing format, the producer has one of the characters say overtly that the word is French. Conversational French items usually depict an interaction between people speaking French at normal conversational speed with all local accents and wording (and sometimes errors) left intact. Part of the objective here is to point out to Canadian children who have no exposure to a totally francophone environment that life takes place in French. Some recent segments have added some English narration which breaks in to explain the sequence of events.

Native Culture and Heritage

Goals in this area include the presentation of culture, costumes, language, songs, arts and crafts, and legends of Canada's Native people. When producing segments in this goal area, producers must strive to present the content without stereotyping the people featured, e.g., native men with a feather head-dress. The stereotypes of native people presented by commercial television and film should not be confirmed. Animation has been used to present some of the legends such as those about Nanabush and the rose bush. Games, such as a game with small stones have been presented by a young Native actor playing the game with children. Arts and crafts have been presented by showing the children interacting with an adult dealing with crafts. Another series of segments about a native painter shows him at work while he explains his art. A series of segments on life in the Arctic regions shows Native and Inuit people using snowmobiles and living like many other Canadians. For instance, after returning from a snowmobile trip, the Inuit family comes home to a ranch-style house which could be anywhere in Canada. A recent segment shows an Inuit grandmother singing a child to sleep. Although the song is unfamiliar, the context is one which most children and parents can relate to.

Cultural, Ethnic, and Racial Diversity

Canada is a rich cultural mosaic made up of people from almost every nation on earth (Canadian Consultative Council on Multiculturalism, 1980). In Canada, there is a conscious and well-publicized government policy to encourage Canadians to celebrate their original cultural heritage. Fleming (1981) pointed out the benefits of multiculturalism for Canadians but noted that cultures other than Anglo-Saxon were often invisible in the Canadian media (see also PEAC Developments, 1980). CBC Sesame Street has attempted to portray the Canadian cultural mosaic by presenting visible minorities in segments and presenting cultural characteristics of different groups to other Canadians (Lewis, 1981).

Program segments often include visible minorities: Orientals, East Indians, Blacks, and Native people. There is no special attention drawn to the minority person; he/she is integrated into the segment. Before 1985, few minority adults were shown but since 1985, Native, Oriental, Black, and East Indian adults have appeared in segments. Since 1986, animators working on segments began to include visible minorities as animated characters in the segments. The rationale behind including visible minorities in segments is that children who are members of these groups will see themselves reflected on television and as a result may feel legitimized by it (Berry & Mitchell-Kernan, 1982).

In another effort to introduce various cultures to viewers, producers are experimenting with ways of including musical backgrounds reflective of Canada's cultures. The rich heritage of Anglo-Celtic music and the skirl of the pipes have not yet been heard as background in segments, but recent segments have witnessed an increase in the use of instruments like the accordion instead of guitars, keyboards, and percussion. The rich lyrical styles of southern Europe, the haunting sitar ragas, Eastern melodies in minor keys, and the percussive rhythms of the Caribbean should be considered for future productions.

Another form of introducing multicultural content is to present the customs of a specific cultural group. Segments have focused on dance, food, entertainment, families, dress, and folklore. This area has been one of the most difficult to negotiate for the producers. While it is theoretically desirable to present high profile culture in a segment, there are inherent dangers. The characteristic being presented may be viewed as a stereotype of the culture. For instance, Ukrainian dancing is very popular in western Canada. A segment on Sesame Street showed young people dancing in red boots and labelled the dance as Ukrainian. To some, the segment was seen as stereotyping Ukrainians as people who wear red boots.

As the program explores cultural customs, more difficulties may arise. Some cultures segregate boys and girls, especially in play. It was recently suggested to the Advisory Committee that segments which showed boys and girls playing together might be offensive to some people. The position taken by the Committee was that boys and girls play together in Canada and that the program would continue to reflect this practice. Similarly, segments have been deliberately designed to show girls and women performing non-traditional tasks. Opposition from cultures which do not believe in equality is not likely to be considered seriously because it does not reflect the Canadian norm.

Canadian Culture and Heritage

Sesame Street goals include presenting information about sports, games, crafts, heritage and history, and Canadian performers. These goals present special challenges because they are often narrative and hard to handle in short segments. One segment on Canadian pottery has been split into two shorter segments so that the content could be covered. History has been particularly difficult to present. Most segments have used animation because of the difficulty of re-enacting scenes. For example, Beau Beaver, an animated character introduced information about the voyageurs and the Canadian coins.

Research from the Children's Television Workshop has shown that performers singing to the camera have trouble maintaining attention. Canadian segments presenting performers have attempted to use action and other visuals to augment the singer. In a segment presenting a song about the sky, shots of the performer singing to children on a prairie were interspersed with shots including cell animation over the cloud forms. Murray McLaughlin; Fred Penner; Sharon, Lois, and Bram; and Valdy are a few of the performers who have appeared on the program.

Regional Diversity

Goals in this area deal with flora, fauna, geography, people, ways of life, and regions. Part of the achievement of this goal involved increasing the number of production sites across Canada. Originally, Winnipeg was the only production site for CBC Sesame Street. A few years later, Montreal was added, then Toronto. Segments are now produced in Halifax, Vancouver, Regina, Edmonton, Ottawa, and Yellowknife although CBC budget cuts may mean that some centres no longer produce segments. Producers from the regions outside central Canada, may naturally reflect their regions. Segments shot in Vancouver or Halifax often use ocean scenes as a backdrop. Prairie segments reflect the broad, flat land in the middle of Canada. The program has resisted producing segments which present a city in a travel ad format preferring instead to show the region as a background.

Making Sesame Street More Canadian

Within and outside CBC, there are often questions about why CBC Sesame Street is not entirely produced in Canada. The chief reason may be the cost of producing a complete hour of television for children. Another valid reason is that many of the excellent U.S. segments present information of universal value and could work in any program. As a result, they are included in the Canadian program. Despite these points, producers and planners have continued to consistently review segments and policy to make the program more Canadian. Viewers have sometimes indicated that they have trouble distinguishing the Canadian program from the U.S. version (which airs on cable stations which carry the Public Broadcasting System feed). Part of this problem should have been corrected by a new opening for the program airing in during the 1988-89 season. This opening was distinctively Canadian, highlighting the CBC Sesame Street. Three new Canadian muppets were included in the opening as well as other Canadian material. Enough shots from the original Sesame Street were retained to link the opening to the U.S. program.

The most significant change has been the introduction of three Canadian muppets. Dodi is a bush pilot who flies around the country in a small plane providing the opportunity to visit major attractions. The introduction of the Dodi segments has allowed producers to use footage of Canadian landmarks like Niagara Falls and the Calgary Stampede with the studio segments hosted by Dodi in her plane. The other two muppets include Basil, who looks like a bear, and Louie, who looks like an otter. Louie is bilingual and helps Basil to learn French. The three muppets have been placed in segments together and have also been linked with children, animated sections, and stock footage. The muppets have allowed producers to deal with content similar to New York segments from a Canadian perspective.

Research on Sesame Street

One of the fundamental changes which CTW introduced with Sesame Street was the principle that research should guide production. CTW uses formative evaluation techniques to modify segments while they are in production. In Canada, the research team conducts post-production evaluations of segments (Caron-Bouchard, 1984). Because of funding restrictions, 20-25 segments are selected for evaluation by the Advisory Board and the producers each year. Variations of the distractor analysis technique (Palmer, 1973) are used to determine children's attention to the segments. Comprehension is determined through in-depth interviews with 20-30 children. Reports from the research team are fed back to producers who incorporate the findings into the following year's segments.

In addition to regular program evaluation, Sesame Street poses many questions for future research. One involves the teaching of French by television in the Sesame Street formats. Lewis (1983) found that segments could be effective in teaching vocabulary to elementary school students. A later study investigated the effect of formal features such as music and multiple presentations of vocabulary on comprehension (Lewis, 1984). There have been no studies with kindergarten students dealing with the question of the effectiveness of the language-teaching formats.

Issues Facing Sesame Street

What Makes a Segment Canadian?

Television can be viewed as using two levels of communication: content and form (McLuhan, 1964). A nation's culture then could presumably be communicated through formal features, the production techniques such as pans, zooms, music, and through what is shown or said (Huston et al., 1981; Anderson & Levin, 1976; and Bouchard, 1979). In an interview (Whittington, 1979), the former executive producer of Sesame Street suggested that a segment would have a Canadian flavour because Canadian ideas and Canadian talent automatically provide a Canadian perspective. Canadian values, he suggested would inevitably come through in the style of the production. If this hypothesis is correct, Canadians should be able to differentiate Canadian segments from their U.S. counterparts regardless of content. This whole area, however, is one which requires intensive further study including a content analysis to discover if there are any differences in formal features between different national productions of this show.

Despite Lavoie's comments, Canadian audiences may need much more explicit cues to identify segments as Canadian. Even if this happens, producers must try harder to identify the regions of Canada as they produce segments. For example, in some cities, major landmarks such as Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Citadel Hill in Halifax, the Ambassador bridge in Windsor immediately identify the location to many people. Audio cues could also give more generalized locations such as region of the country. In the muppet segments, Dodi's plane and her flying jacket both display the flag, clearly labelling them as Canadian. Canadian weather can also be exploited since some areas have so much winter. Segments shot in Edmonton, Winnipeg, Yellowknife, and Montreal could exploit winter backgrounds for segments. Productions from both coasts could exploit the fog and rain as backgrounds.

To determine how Canada was reflected in the program, Lewis (1990) studied the 1985 production year of the program. Eleven of the 41 live segments contained cues identifying the segments as Canadian. In some segments, cues which would be familiar to residents of the city (like the clock on the Halifax citadel or the RCMP college) were presented. However, in most other segments, opportunities to identify segments with the locale in which they were shot were missed. To achieve the goal of presenting Canada to Canadian children in the best way, producers must include overt Canadian cues as described above. Failure to do so deprives the Canadian viewer of the opportunity to be exposed (and know they are being exposed) to another part of the country.

Research is needed both with children and parents to determine of they notice the difference between Canadian and U.S. segments and the types of formal features which help them identify different locales in Canada. For instance, producers need research data on whether signs are noticed enough or whether the soundtrack, which usually carries the meaningful information, should contain the Canadian cue. Researchers must also determine if viewers in a region can identify their region in the segments and which cues they use to perform this identification task.

The Communication of French Language

Despite the use of various formats to teach French, there has been little research on the efficiency of the various models of presenting French using television. Research must focus on the best formats for achieving particular goals such as vocabulary or phrase acquisition and exposure to spoken French. Issues involve whether content can be presented as spoken words or a song, the number of times a word is introduced, whether conversation French segments achieve their objectives, the necessity for exact audio-visual correspondence, and the necessity for live speakers mouthing the words.

Some anglophone producers have tried to achieve French goals concurrently with goals such as counting. These producers naturally develop the idea in English and then translate it. D'Anglejan (1986) has suggested that translation does not always work. For instance, the word "up" has many different meanings in English which cannot always be translated as "en haut." Relational concepts like big, bigger, biggest, which work well in English, are awkward in French. D'Anglejan suggests that producers start with the French content to be taught and then design the segment around it instead of planning a segment in English and then translating it to make it work. The producers will have to seek the help of francophone Canadians to develop bilingual segments.

It is critically important that French segments continue to be produced outside Quebec. The vibrant francophone communities outside Quebec must continue to be tapped as a resource for segments, especially since they often reflect a French-Canadian reality unlike that of Quebec. However, this recommendation poses another problem. In Montreal, native French speakers abound. However, in other parts of Canada, it is more difficult to locate adult and child actors who can speak French fluently and perform the required actions in program segments. Regional wording, which sometimes contains errors and colloquial speech poses another problem because of the new awareness in Quebec about the quality of French being used in media. During a recent screening, a segment originally produced in 1976 was presented with a new soundtrack. The original contained the French phrase "C'est le fun." Although this construction might have been acceptable in 1976, current thinking made it less desirable. Regional accents pose another problem. While varieties of English as spoken by Atlantic Canadians have been presented there has been a reluctance to present non-standard accents in French. If French segments continue to be produced outside Quebec, non-standard accents may have to be accepted.

It has been suggested that people in segments be seen communicating in both languages to model a desirable situation in Canada. Certain situations, like French immersion classes, lend themselves well to such communication but raise other issues. Because these programs focus on children learning French as a second language, students sometimes make errors while learning French. Producers may have to decide whether to leave the errors as is or re-dub the soundtracks. From the author's viewpoint, errors should be included. Learning a second language is difficult. Parents and pre-schoolers should see the process in action, errors intact.

The Communication of Culture

Sesame Street's goals regarding culture and heritage pose particular difficulties. The producers want the audience to learn more about the various cultures which make up Canada. Segments presenting French culture and heritage, multicultural content or native heritage have been criticized both in screening sessions and after they were aired. Most of the criticism concerns stereotyping; e.g., showing Ukrainian children dancing in red boots or showing all members of a culture consuming one special food, implying that they always eat it. The problem is what to present and how to present content without using stereotypes. People outside a culture can often only comprehend it by noticing the differences between their culture and the other culture. There may be a temptation then to highlight the differences in segments. From the author's viewpoint, in all cases where the program wants to communicate culture, members of the target group must be involved with what should be communicated. Acadians, Chinese, and other cultural groups could influence decisions about what aspects of their culture are featured in segments. While presenting food or other cultural features, care must be shown to show members of other cultures enjoying a cultural feature other than their own.

Regional Diversity

The problem of stereotyping can also occur here. When most Canadians from central Canada think of the Maritimes, visions of beaches, sailboats, fish, and lighthouses come to mind. Segments from the maritime regions must reflect more than these stereotypes if they are to contribute to regional understanding. The other difficulty is that except for Halifax, St. John's, and Vancouver, which because of their location are very distinctive, sections of other Canadian cities look very much alike. Parts of Fredericton, New Brunswick, look much like Windsor, Ontario, or Regina, Saskatchewan. Urban segments from the regions may be difficult to identify as regional segments unless they present some features of the city recognizable to local residents and perhaps to others. For instance, any Ottawa segment which had a glimpse of Parliament Hill would indicate that the segment was shot in Ottawa. Obviously, it is CBC's hope that to resolve the problem of urban similarity producers will look beyond the city boundaries for locations and sites which represent regional distinctiveness.

Content Repetition

Because the CBC buys the previous year's version of Sesame Street, certain content will surely be repeated. With most segments, there is little concern. However with certain content, problems arise. Several years ago, CTW decided to deal with Mr. Hooper's death on the air. As a result, Mr. Hooper died one year on the U.S. version and then a year later in the Canadian version. Similarly, Maria and Luis's wedding, seen in 1988 by children watching the U.S. version, was seen in 1989 on the CBC version. Since many Canadian children watch both versions, parents may have to deal with some confused children.

Further Use of Segments

There has been an interest in further use of Sesame Street segments in schools and other formal learning environments. The French segments were of particular interest. CBC Enterprises, the marketing arm of the CBC, has begun to make segments available for purchase. However, the mentality of selling a half-hour program has been hard to break. Lewis (1983) found that teachers liked the flexibility of using segments as units and not as part of a long program. The teachers enjoyed selecting and assembling segments which met their desired teaching objectives and approaches. They did not necessarily want one pre-defined 30-minute program, wanting instead to select from a large body of segments. Efforts to get CBC to release the many powerful segments must continue so that Canadian educators and children will have access to them.

Future Directions

As Canadian society continues to change, new goal areas will have to be added. During the 1988 annual seminar, the Advisory Committee and Producers heard presentations by experts dealing with the environment, the family, and multiculturalism. As a result of the presentation on the environment, every effort will be made to reduce presentations of non-biodegradable materials, like styrofoam cups in segments.

Segments as Vehicles for Increasing International Understanding

Although large-scale, one-sided flow of programs can be negative, two-way flow can be most beneficial to all parties (Varis, 1985; MacBride et al., 1980). The benefits of two-way exchanges of Sesame Street programs should be examined. Versions of Sesame Street are produced in many countries including Germany, Latin America, Israel, the Middle East, and New Zealand (Gettas, 1990). The segments produced in these countries could be exchanged so that children get glimpses of other nations in a format they understand. It would also be interesting to analyze different versions of Sesame Street to determine if formal features vary across cultures. This research could present some excellent material for future work in the area of culture and the media.


The author chairs the Board of Educational Advisors of CBC Sesame Street. The views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of CBC.
Portions of this paper were presented to a Plenary Session of the Australian Society for Educational Technology Annual Conference, Canberra, Australia, October, 1988.


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