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.