Moving Sesame Street … to HBO

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When I was a youngster watching Sesame Street, I always knew that it had its sponsors: Two letters and a number. “Sesame Street is brought to you by the letters T and W,” I might hear at the end of the show, “and the number 9.”

As of this fall, the landmark educational show will have a new set of sponsors: H, B and O.

The move was necessitated out of money, we’re told. Perennially, Sesame Street has been mostly self-supporting, garnering most of its operating budget through licensing fees for such things as DVDs. But with more and more kids watching the show on the Internet these days, those fees are drying up. And PBS, apparently, didn’t have the wherewithal to make up the difference. And so folks from the Sesame Workshop began shopping the show around. HBO welcomed Big Bird et al. with open arms.

“The partnership is really a great thing for kids,” says Jeffrey Dunn, chief executive of Sesame Workshop. “We’re getting revenues we otherwise would not have gotten, and with this we can do even more content for kids.”

Sesame Street episodes (now a half-hour in length) will still be shown on PBS, albeit nine months after they air on HBO. The five-year deal will ensure that the educational program—which taught me and perhaps millions of other kids their ABCs—will stay on the air. So perhaps this is the “great thing” that Dunn says it is.

But it makes me sad anyway.

Sesame Street and I were born in the very same year: 1969. The show and I grew up together, and it was instrumental in instilling a love of letters and numbers as I went into kindergarten. The series was “built on a dream of using television to educate children,” according to its own website, and it proved to be a particularly valuable helpmate for poorer kids. Just this June, a study from the University of Maryland and Wellesley College found that Sesame Street’s educational benefits were sometimes as strong as preschool itself, and its impact was particularly profound in “disadvantaged areas.”

“After Sesame Street was introduced, children living in places where its broadcast could be more readily received saw a 14% drop in their likelihood of being behind in school,” wrote The Washington Post’s Jim Tankersley. That puts a television show on par with the benefits of Head Start, a pre-kindergarten program for poorer American kids.

And now, the show is going to HBO, a subscription-based “premium channel” available in just around 20% of U.S. homes. The most egalitarian of programs has been subsumed by arguably the most elitist of networks—and one of the most ethically challenged, as well.

As a premium channel, HBO is under no constraints as to what it allows in its programming. And above all premium channels, it’s become notorious for its salacious, gratuitous content. Game of Thrones helped coin the term “sexposition”—the practice of filming dry, plot-driving explanations in the heart of brothels and boudoirs. Secular critics have long pointed to HBO’s penchant for sticking bare breasts in its viewers’ faces. Wrote Los Angeles Times‘ Mary McNamara in 2011, “HBO has a higher population of prostitutes per capita than Amsterdam or Charlie Sheen’s Christmas card list.”

Now, I don’t expect HBO to insist that Sesame Street muppets start showing a little more fluffy skin. (Most, technically, are largely naked as it is.) But the fact that Sesame Street is located next door to Westeros, the horrifically tawdry country from Game of Thrones, still makes me deeply uneasy.

There are those, of course, who would say that perhaps Sesame Street has been trending downward for a while now. Adam Holz has called the program out a couple of times, most recently for its riff on 50 Shades of Grey.

 

But for me, Sesame Street has always felt like one of those rare good forces in television—educational and innocent. The idea that a show can be both good and good for you is an ideal that I still cling to, and one that Sesame Street has felt, more often than not, an example of. But with its move from PBS to HBO, some of that innocence—real or imagined—was torn away.

I hope that Sesame Street will continue to teach children their numbers and ABCs. I hope that the Grouch will be grouchy and the Count will still be counting for many years to come. But for me, some of Sesame Street’s innocence has been lost. The Muppets have moved to Westeros’ King’s Landing. And as any Game of Thrones fan will tell you, that’s not a healthy place to live.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

Rocketshipper More than 1 year ago
I was wondering when Pluggedin was going to mention this.

From a purely economic standpoint this seems like a pretty poor move on Sesame Street's part.  Many of their target audience probably can't afford to have a subscription to the channel in the first place, and I'm sure that many households who can will still choose to forego a subscription because of the issues with HBO's other racy content.  Marissa is right in pointing out that they aren't going to deliberately air Sesame Street in the same time-slot as racier shows, but even just having the channel itself active in the household could be too much of a risk for some families.  It's always possible the child could tune in at another time to something much less appropriate.  The only thing this move is likely to do is cut off Sesame Street from a large portion of it's core audience, because it seems unlikely to me that having Sesame Street on HBO will increase subscription revenues all that much, since the people who generally watch Sesame street probably can't afford or won't want HBO to begin with.  
bobed More than 1 year ago
This is a horrible move. Sesame Street was originally intended to help educate poor kids. Now it's on a premium channel that you've got to pay extra for?! Great thinking, everyone.
Marissa More than 1 year ago
I don't get why it's a bit deal that Sesame Street is on the same channel as Game of Thrones. Saying "The Muppets have moved to Westeros’ King’s Landing" is just silly. It's not as though the two shows are merging, or even airing back to back. GoT is on Sunday nights at 9:00, and SS presumably airs in the mornings or afternoons. The kids watching SS won't have any idea that GoT exists. The two shows couldn't be any more different, and the fact that they're on the same channel is irrelevant to their content. That's like saying that women's bowling is exactly the same thing as professional football because they're both on ESPN.

Also, Game of Thrones is scheduled to wrap up in another two seasons anyway, so this "deeply uneasy" issue is temporary.

I would say the bigger problem is that HBO as a subscription-only channel is far less readily available than PBS, so the number of kids able to watch SS will significantly decrease. But since, as this post says, the episodes will still eventually air on PBS, even that isn't ultimately isn't a huge deal. Maybe the nine-month delay in airing on PBS will just teach kids patience and delayed gratification along with numbers and ABCs.