Alumni Profile: Jodi Nussbaum '81
If Jodi Nussbaum gets her way, Muppets will be popping up everywhere. Over the years since Sesame Street debuted in 1969, children in 120 countries have enjoyed versions of the groundbreaking educational TV show and other creations of the New York-based Sesame Workshop. Today, the Workshop and partners in nine countries co-produce programs based on Sesame Street but tailored to local tastes and needs. Nussbaum is working to take the music, the gags, the fuzzy monsters and the whole successful formula to many more corners of the globe.
"Sesame Street has had an impact in this country unlike anything else," and the Sesame Street brand is a powerful force for teaching children all over the world, said Nussbaum, group vice president for television, film and home video at Sesame Workshop. The not-for-profit corporation creates Sesame Street and other educational children's shows -- such as Dragon Tales and Sagwa the Chinese Siamese Cat -- plus a panoply of videos, books, magazines and software products.
The workshop has 21 new international co-productions in development (in Japan, Ukraine, Greece, Kosovo, El Salvador and Brazil, to name a few), most based on Sesame Street and all aimed at helping children understand their world. "This is what we can do on this planet to make it better," Nussbaum said.
Nussbaum's career in media started at BU, where she studied communications and worked at campus radio station WHRW. A student internship with Action News for Kids on Binghamton's WBNG-TV led to a full-time job as a producer on that show. After three years, Nussbaum returned to New York City, where she worked on numerous shows, including Kate and Allie, Saturday Night Live and several programs on MTV.
But her real goal was to make children's programming. "The only reason I wanted to work at MTV was so that I could really work at Nickelodeon," Nussbaum said, laughing. Although she never made the jump to the other Viacom network, she did find work as a freelance producer on several shows for Sesame workshop. Eight years ago, she took her first "desk job" at the workshop, as group vice president, production.
These days, Nussbaum supervises the creation of all the workshop's TV, film and home video products worldwide. The international partnerships pose special challenges. "The most important thing is to help a production team in another country feel empowered to make their own project" and not an American TV show, she says. While the unmistakable Sesame flavor infuses each production, the local partners mix material and puppets from the U.S. version with their own scripts and characters, creating a show that speaks to their unique audience.
In Egypt, for instance, the producers decided to emphasize girls' education, "because studies were done, and it seemed that girls could not count as high as boys," Nussbaum said. South Africa's Takalani Sesame features the U.S. character Elmo, but it also addresses local concerns with Kami, a bright gold Muppet infected with HIV.
Three years of difficult work recently culminated in Sesame Stories, a co-production with teams in Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Territories that aims to encourage tolerance, mutual respect and understanding. While the show has received terrific reviews, it has also drawn criticism, Nussbaum said. "Not all the Jordanians, Palestinians and Israelis like that we're trying to foster conflict resolution."
Bringing the Sesame brand to more corners of the globe also demands financial creativity. As high-quality children's programming has exploded in the past 15 years, competition has forced down the fees that broadcasters pay production companies, Nussbaum said. The Workshop has to invent new ways to raise money to support its mission.
It's not an easy mission, but Nussbaum says it's led to an ideal career. "The combination of doing what I love -- making TV shows -- and doing them for kids, which is what I've wanted to do since I was a student at Binghamton, is an amazingly gratifying experience."
-- Merrill Oliver Douglas, MA '82