Everyone knows how to get to Sesame Street.
Every child for the past four decades (!) has grown up learning from Big Bird, Grover, The Count, Cookie Monster, Oscar and the rest. We learned the alphabet, the meanings of words, how to count, how to be better people, and even how to cope with death. Sesame Street has taught so much for so many, and every little kid knows where to find it.
To me, Sesame Street has always been the epitome of the ideals of public television: providing worthwhile, educational programming to everyone. All you need is a TV. Regardless of geography, race, or class, rich or poor, every kid could turn on Sesame Street and learn the same lessons. Public television puts every viewer on an even platform; a purpose that I think fits with the ideals of media. The idea that we use this powerful tool called television to – as Edward R. Murrow once said – inform, educate, and inspire. Programs aren’t beholden to advertisers, they aren’t worried about sponsors’ response, and they aren’t hidden behind a pay wall.
Sesame Workshop announced Thursday that the next five seasons of Sesame Street will first air on HBO. Yes, HBO – the home of Game of Thrones, True Detective, and others. PBS will air first-run episodes of Sesame Street nine months after they have already aired on HBO. Sesame Workshop said the funding will allow them to increase its production of Sesame Street episodes, after seeing revenue from merchandising drop over the past few years. According to the New York Times, only about 10 percent of Sesame Street’s funding comes from PBS.
One one hand, allowing Sesame Street the financial freedom to create more great work is a wonderful thing. But I worry about what this partnership signals about the availability of the show for all.
The only way to access HBO is by subscribing through a satellite or cable package (anywhere from $10 to $20 per month), or signing up for the HBO Now streaming service for $15 per month. Regardless of how you try to spin it, it still means that Sesame Street will only be available for those willing to pay.
To me, this goes against the purpose of public television that Sesame Street has exemplified for decades. The idea that the same great programming is available for all.
Before you start – I’m not blind to the merchandising juggernaut that is Sesame Street. The show makes plenty of money selling toys, clothing, DVDs and anything else with characters plastered on them. It’s not a charity by any means. But at its most basic level, the show was still available for free to anyone with a TV. Strip away all the merchandising, and it was still a free education show for every child. No matter how much disposable income you had, everyone could still watch Sesame Street and learn the same lessons, free of charge.
Yes, I know Sesame Street will still air reruns on PBS, and it’s not like new episodes are particularly time-sensitive. But I worry about the precedent this sets toward public television. The funding model for stations like PBS have been in jeopardy for a long time, but somehow, through the support of viewers like you, it has maintained a high level of independence. Now, the most famous and successful show on public television needs HBO to bail it out.
“You want to keep watching programming like this? Well, we’ve got to pay the bills, so enter your credit card information and watch this ad for Girls.”
If Sesame Street needs a detour, what does that mean for the rest of public television?
Let’s get something straight – HBO does not care about educational programming. What they do care about is getting a larger share of viewers. Sesame Street on HBO all but ensures the premium cable service will see an increase in subscriptions by families wanting to watch the show on air or online. They care about what airing Sesame Street will mean for them, not what it means for viewers and families. Just look at this quote from HBO executive Richard Plepler:
“We were instantly thrilled for the opportunity to bring an iconic series like ‘Sesame Street’ to HBO. ‘Sesame Street’ stands for excellence and quality in children’s programming, and we stand for excellence and quality in all programming. If we are going to lean into that and start to do more, we want to associate ourselves with a brand that is consummate to ourselves.”
Translation: “We’re going to make a ton of money from this.”
They just want to associate themselves with the brand. Educational programming is only important if it airs on their network.
Public television carries the idea that media should be created with a purpose; to benefit the world with your programming. Support your local public television and keep it available to everyone.
Because how can you add up the money to pay for HBO if you were never taught how to count?