USAid is spending $20m to remake Sesame Street for audiences in Pakistan. The location will be a 'lively village ... with a roadside tea and snacks stall ... some fancy houses with overhanging balconies along with simple dwellings, and residents hanging out on their verandas' (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/apr/07/sesame-street-pakistan). The series will feature characters tailor-made for the audience (including Rani, the child of a peasant farmer), and will be broadcast in Urdu and 56 regional languages. The Guardian reports that 'The show will have strong female characters and carry an implicit message of tolerance, but will feature no pro-American propaganda or overt challenge to hardline religious sentiment. ... The Pakistani Sesame Street could turn out to be the most visible American aid project in Pakistan in recent years'.
This is not the first time that Sesame Street is remade for local audiences: by 2006 there were 20 co-productions in countries all over the world, each one addressing local audiences with local characters, locations and issues relevant to the audiences. The first HIV-positive Muppet, Kami, was created in 2003 to help address South Africa's AIDS epidemic.
In 2011 Sesame Street returns to China in the form of 52 11-minute Chinese episodes of Sesame Street: Big Bird Looks at the World (Zhima Jie: Da Niao Kan Shijie) broadcast on Haha TV, which reaches Shanghai’s population of roughly 18.5 million. This follows Sesame Street's presence at the Shanghai Expo where Big Bird joined expo mascot Haibao to present a Magic Map Show.
I am not aware of any serious study of Sesame Street and public diplomacy, but it does seem an excellent example of promoting American soft power through aid and education. Meanwhile, because each co-production is created around local needs, characters, locations and issues, it helps to dismiss the nonsense of cultural imperialism that refuses to go away in many academic debates about international communications. There are some who will criticise USAid's involvement and claim that this undermines the credibility of the programme. But remember these are co-productions that would not be possible without the involvement of local programmers; and when it comes to a child's education, does it really matter? Localisation would not be possible (especially in China) if there was a suggestion that the programmes would be a vehicle for the promotion of US values. Let's hope these new ventures are a success.