Gentrifying Sesame Street

Screen Shot 2015-08-14 at 5.53.53 PMSome news stories are hard to joke about, like the explosions in China or the ongoing tensions in Ferguson, Missouri. Others, like the one this week that proto-kids’ show Sesame Street is moving to premium cable network HBO, are easy.

This week’s episode brought to you by the letters H, B, and O! You know nothing, Elmo! Or my favorite:


If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear all the people out there furiously trying to finish their Game of Thrones video mashup where they dub an alphabet lesson over one of the show’s famous ‘sexposition’ scenes.

A lot of people don’t seem to see it as a laughing matter, however. My social feeds are full of Class Warriors complaining that this move is emblematic of the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots, and that it’s hitting the kids who need Sesame Street the most, underprivileged kids — the very kids it was invented for — the hardest. A few quotes from the comments section under the New York Times article on the deal:

Must be true. Everyone and everything has a price. Once again OUR public dollars created Sesame Street and now the privateers are taking it over for personal gain. Welcome to 3rd world America where only the financial elite reap the benefits of society and government and the rest of us get the throwaways WE paid for with OUR consumer, 401k and tax dollars.. HBO will probably get the OUR government money to produce “children’s learning television”. What a joke. It’s getting harder and harder to love America – land taken over by insatiable greed with zero social conscience.

So I guess the options for my kids are:
1. I fork over $180 per year for an HBO subscription that I don’t need for anything else nor do I want my children to have access to for the largely explicit material shown on this channel. Or,
2. They watch a total of 4 re-hashed episodes on PBSkids since the shows won’t be available on Amazon or Netflix (I have subscriptions).
If I end up paying HBO, I guess PBS can kiss goodbye my contributions. If that’s the way others think, PBS will might no longer exist. I’m certainly not going to contribute in order to watch Downton Abbey.

Now that it’s on HBO, can the violence, profanity and nudity be far behind? (Though I guess most of the Muppets are already nude.)

Everybody calm down. Though it is a little depressing that PBS can’t afford to pay Big Bird’s salary all by itself, that’s been the case for quite a while. Sesame Street has been producing fewer and fewer episodes — before this deal, they were making 18 a year — and continued budget cuts from the federal government forced the show to rely on DVD sales for the lion’s (or the Snuffleuppagus’) share of its funding, and the streaming video revolution has parked that revenue stream right next to Oscar the Grouch.

Under this deal with HBO, the network has doubled the show’s annual order to 35 episodes, which will run exclusively on HBO and (more importantly, I bet) its streaming services for nine months, at which point PBS is free to air them. With this deal, PBS can re-allocate whatever it was giving Sesame Street to other programming, so PBS now gets the show basically for free. Without the deal, shrinking budgets and shrinking DVD sales would very likely have combined to kill the show off altogether in the very near future.

Also, it’s not like this show is tied to the news cycle, like Saturday Night Live or The Daily Show — it’s a show that teaches kids how to read. There are no spoilers. Kids aren’t going to notice if an episode is nine months old, because most of the episodes they’re watching now are at least that old. Sesame Street is on every day, but it only produces 18 shows a year, which means the vast majority are warmed over or reconfigured reruns. The show is produced with this in mind; it doesn’t put anything in that will tie it too closely to any particular moment in time.

At least, that’s how I remember it. I haven’t watched it since I was a kid, and somehow my own kid, who’s now 8, never got into Sesame Street, I guess because of our obsessive urge to regulate his “screen time.” (Which has been a miserable failure, by the way, but that’s a different topic.) Maybe nowadays they’ve got Elmo in a Donald Trump wig, in which case I’d argue maybe this is not the august cultural institution we remember.

Some people seem to object to the idea of kids’ programming being on the same channel that’s home to the sex and violence of Game of Thrones. But this is not the first time HBO has had kids’ programming, or even the first time it’s had Muppets; I used to watch Fraggle Rock on HBO back when my cable box had a dial on it and everything HBO showed after 11pm had Emanuelle in the title, and I (arguably) turned out okay. If your kids are young enough to want to watch Sesame Street and yet you can’t figure out a way to keep them from watching Taxicab Confessions, I would argue that you are leaning a little too hard on the TV as a parenting aid.

It is sad that it’s come to this, that a premium cable network had to ride to PBS’ rescue and save something that was specifically designed to be free to everyone. But HBO is not the villain here. It did not swallow up Sesame Street and turn it into a for-profit enterprise; the show was drowning, and HBO tossed it a life raft. Hell, HBO tossed it a yacht! The nine-month exclusive window on the new episodes might seem unfair but HBO has to get something for its investment, and they’re getting another reason for people to subscribe. You can call taking that help “selling out,” I guess, but a choice between this deal and no Sesame Street at all seems like it should be an easy one.

So if you don’t want to pay for HBO, but you want to see (or rather, you want your kid to see) new episodes of Sesame Street, you can handle it exactly the same as you handle the exact same scenario for Game of Thrones: either wait nine months and watch it on video PBS, or borrow a friend’s HBO GO login.

Sorry to cut this short, but I have to get back to work on my mashup of the audio from the “fuck crime scene investigation” scene from The Wire with some video of Bert and Ernie before someone else posts the same thing.

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