Even children’s television programming is not immune from collective emotion. The first episode of Sesame Street aired on PBS in late 1969 during a bear market. The “sweet trauma” of the early shows, now available on digital video, is unlike the episodes of a later bull market era. As reviewed by Virginia Heffernan in the New York Times, “Just don’t bring the children. According to an earnest warning on Volumes 1 and 2, Sesame Street: Old School is adults only: ‘These early Sesame Street episodes are intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child’…The masonry on the dingy brownstone at 123 Sesame Street, where the closeted Ernie and Bert shared a dismal basement apartment, was deteriorating. Oscar’s depression was untreated. Prozacky Elmo didn’t exist.
“The old Sesame Street is not for the faint of heart… On the first episode (the chronically mood-disordered) Oscar the Grouch appears irredeemably miserable—hypersensitive, sarcastic, misanthropic. Bert, too, is described as grouchy.” The executive producer of Sesame Street said, ‘We might not be able to create a character like Oscar now’…People on Sesame Street had limited possibilities and fixed identities, and (the best part) you weren’t expected to change much. The harshness of existence was a given."
The tone of the program would later change as social mood improved. As it emerged from its early bear market years, television critic Michiko Kakutani noted “Sesame Street grew softer and fuzzier over time, losing whatever edge it once possessed.” The upbeat Elmo character was developed in 1984, in the early stages of a two-decade roaring bull market. In 1996 a Tickle Me Elmo toy became that year’s top fad; the toy would shake and laugh hysterically when squeezed.
In 1992 PBS launched the children’s show Barney and Friends that was perfectly aligned with the upbeat 1990s bull market. Barney was a cheery, purple and green anthropomorphic dinosaur that exhibited a permanent grin, giddy chuckles, and exclamations like “Super-de Dooper!” His demeanor was eternally sunny and his attitude optimistic. He sang the much parodied, “I love you, you love me, we’re a happy family.”
Commentator Chaka Willig Levy criticized the show for its failure to aid children in dealing with negative events; the world view of Barney “is denial: the refusal to recognize the existence of unpleasant realities. For along with his steady diet of giggles and unconditional love, Barney offers our children a one-dimensional world where everyone must be happy and everything must be resolved right away.” But PBS characters simply reflect the reality that, in times of high social mood, people generally are happy and do minimize unpleasantness.
The children’s series Teletubbies was produced near a major bull market zenith, from 1997-2001. The show featured occasional physical comedy and four brightly colored doll-like characters (Tinky Winky, Laa-Laa, Dipsy, and Po) who lived in a futuristic dome in a landscape of rolling green hills, talkative flowers, and a sunny and pleasant climate.
Incessantly "happy" children's TV series are less likely to be produced or be popular in periods of negative social mood. And as Sesame Street illustrates, the emotional tone of the series is likely to change in accordance with major fluctuations in social mood.