PARIS When a squeezable, and bankable, star named Elmo made a belated comeback in France this year, long after his Muppet birth in the United States, doubts emerged immediately about the puppet's proper French esprit.
Was Elmo too sweet? Did the google-eyed creature with a crimson shag and the whispery voice of a 3-year-old lack sufficient Gallic irony?
Thirty-six years after the original "Sesame Street" made its debut in the United States, Elmo has left his familiar neighborhood for a fresh wave of globalization, bound for countries that are discarding dubbed American versions for local productions inhabited by denizens with names like Nac, Khokha and Kami.
The makeovers, from Bollywood to Paris and from Tokyo to South Africa, are transforming what it means to be a Muppet. And one result is new licensing income from global co-productions that are subsidizing more treats for the Cookie Monster back at the New York headquarters of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind "Sesame Street."
Revenue at Sesame Workshop increased 4 percent last year, to $96 million, primarily because of new income from international licensing.
France is the latest country to offer up its version with "5, rue Sésame," a quaint street of tall buildings and bright blue skies, flower boxes and, of course, a tidy village bakery stocked with baguettes. But certain American puppets are gone, including one that you might expect could rattle French sensibilities: "Sesame Street's" floppy-armed front man, Kermit the Frog.
"It took us a year and a half to launch this show," said Alexandre Michelin, programming director for France 5, a state-run public television and co-producer with Sesame Workshop of the two-month-old show. "We had to adapt it to keep 'Sesame Street' values and ours, finding a way to make it work with French issues."
For rue Sésame, that means there is a glancing scene of a tall suburban building, laced with graffiti - a nod to suburbs around the country that were engulfed in rioting a few weeks ago. The local bakery is run by Baya, an Arabic-looking woman, although - in another reflection of French sensibilities - her origins are never mentioned.
Big Bird has also vanished, replaced by an enormous yellow character, Nac, whose trumpet nose, vivid colors and whimsical nature were tested with children and reviewed by a French psychologist. The American bird disappeared because the French co-producer wanted a unique and distinctive puppet star that could also be a mascot for their station.
Patricia Chalon, the therapist, also helped the show's creators shape other new Muppet characters like Griotte, a little girl in a wheelchair, and helped tweak messages so young viewers could better understand why a character was speaking in sign language.
The same sort of review is taking place now in India, where a co-production of a new "Sesame Street" version in Hindi is in development for a debut early next year. Miditech, a leading Indian television production company based in New Delhi, held a news conference last week to introduce new characters for the show, which will be broadcast on Turner International's cartoon network.
Big Bird was also eliminated in this version, replaced by a giant lion named Boombah, who for now speaks in Hindi but eventually will master other tongues in a country with 15 official languages, excluding English. Along this streetscape, the communal French bakery is replaced by one of the Internet cafés that are ubiquitous in Indian villages.
"If it is to work in India, the Indian kid watching it should not feel it is American or foreign," said Niret Alva, president of Miditech.
Alva noted that the American version had never made the leap beyond a niche channel in India to reach a mass audience of children estimated at more than 157 million. "Our show is made by Indians and for Indians," Alva said, "and we are looking for characters who can play this part for the next 10 to 15 years."
Miditech is a company better known for popular reality shows like "Indian Idol," and it is already laying plans to enlist stars from that show, along with Bollywood musical celebrities, to dance with the Muppets.
The new co-producers and Sesame Workshop offer many altruistic reasons for creating the shows, from spreading a message of tolerance and diversity in France, to promoting unity in India between rural and urban areas, or easing ethnic tensions in Kosovo..
But beyond those motives, there are the important side benefits of new income from licensing and merchandising, particularly from new characters with distinctive national identities.
Last year, 68 percent of Sesame Street's revenue came from income from licensing of products. Japan started its own version of "Sesame Street" last year, and Sesame's 4 percent jump in revenue last year came largely from licensing agreements in Japan.
Today, "Sesame Street" appears in more than 120 countries, and about 25 of them are co-productions. France once had a more American version of "Sesame Street," in the 1970s and early 1980s, but stronger local competition pushed it off the air.
A new wave of co-productions started in the past five years, among them the Arabic Egyptian broadcast, "Alam Simsim," which is now seeking to spread to other Arabic-speaking countries with a pan-Arab version that just started appearing on Lebanese television.
The global merchandizing income is most important because it "is subsidizing the show in the U.S. and subsidizing the research that we do at the workshop," said Gary Knell, chief executive of Sesame Workshop in New York. He added, though, that "there are many countries, like Bangladesh or Kosovo, where we go in where there is no expectation of making any money on ancillary income from product sales."
Such is the case with the new Cambodian version, "Sabai Sabai Sesame" ("Happy Happy Sesame"), which is scheduled to be broadcast for the first time Tuesday, partly with funding by the U.S. government. This show is basically an American version dubbed in Khmer.
But countries with large populations and high disposable income have a commercial incentive to develop their own versions. France 5's commercial arm, France Télévision Distribution, for example, is developing a two-stage strategy to bring merchandise to the market in the next nine months.
Franck Cymes, a senior vice president for licensing at France Télévision Distribution, said his company had signed four licensees in the first months of the show's life, including with the toymaker Mattel, for a list of products that range from standard plush toys and pajamas to melamine dishware. As the show's popularity increases, he said, their ambitions would extend to licensing for healthy food lines. But fast-food chains like McDonald's are not on the list.
"They just don't go together," he said, noting that a primary message of "5, rue Sésame" is to promote healthy nutrition.
The global brand Sesame will soon have its own feature-length documentary movie, "The World According to Sesame Street." It will have its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
The filmmakers, Linda Goldstein Knowlton and Linda Hawkins Costigan, set out to explore the backstage dramas of international versions in South Africa, Bangladesh and Kosovo, where they found Muppets could be agents of social change and understanding, like Kami, an HIV-positive puppet, on "Talakani Sesame" in South Africa.
Within France, the creators of "5, rue Sésame" are studying their completed shows and considering whether some cultural values need further adjusting.
"We had the feeling that it was a little bit too sweet, too nice," said Michelin, the France 5 programming director. "We need some irony. It's very difficult to evaluate, but we have the feeling that in France we can be a little edgier."
'Sesame Street' goes local, without some old friends
By Doreen Carvajal International Herald Tribune
SUNDAY, DECEMBER 11, 2005