Everybody Calm Down About HBO’s ‘Sesame Street’ Deal

When The New York Times reported the details of a new deal between HBO and the Sesame Workshop yesterday, in which the pay cable network will fund the iconic children’s program for five years in exchange for limited exclusivity of new episodes, the immediate reactions were mostly of the jokey, Game of Thrones/#TrueDetectiveSeason3 variety. But as the news spread, objections that the move “feels wrong” grew louder, and predictably enough, the thinkpiece parade began.

All concerned parties are, of course, careful to note that the deal is basically a net gain. After all, PBS in general and Sesame Street in particular are perpetual targets for snipers of “wasteful”/“unnecessary” government spending (“I like PBS, I love Big Bird,” insisted empty suit Mitt Romney in a 2012 presidential debate, “but I’m not gonna keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for”), although per PBS, “federal investment in public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget.” In fact, as Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff points out, PBS doesn’t own or even pay for a significant portion of the show; they pay production entity Sesame Workshop a licensing fee, with the bulk of the show’s funding coming from merchandising — thanks, Tickle Me Elmo — and ancillary income like DVD sales.

"Sesame Street" publicity photo

But with physical media in a steep decline, Sesame Street’s production funds were taking a hit. According to the Times, Sesame Workshop reported a $14 million loss in 2014, with its $104 million in operating revenues down nearly 14% from the year before. PBS couldn’t make up the difference; in fact, the day before the HBO deal broke, Current reported PBS stations would cease airing the hour-long version of Sesame Street come fall, and would instead run only the half-hour version that’s also been on the schedule since last year. This decision may have been related to the in-the-works HBO deal, but considering how long they’ve been test-driving the 30-minute version, that seems unlikely; this was probably another way for the show, and the network, to save a few pennies.

Now they won’t have to worry. The HBO deal will allow Sesame Workshop to produce nearly twice as many new shows this year as last (35 instead of 18). It will mean the end of the show’s streaming availability on Netflix and Amazon Prime, but those licensing deals end all the time, and in addition to its new home on HBO Now and HBO GO, episodes will still stream for free on PBS KIDS, and there are clips and episodes a-plenty, free and legal, on YouTube. The pay net will provide Sesame Street to PBS and its affiliates for free, saving the public television network something like $4 million per year (according to a Times source). And yes, that means Sesame Street will stay on PBS, albeit with those 35 new shows airing exclusively on HBO (and its streaming platforms) for nine months.

And it’s that last point that’s causing so many furrowed brows among so many otherwise sensible scribes — not because of any actual effect on the pre-K audience that views the show in question, but because of what it means to them. “The impact is more symbolic/emotional than practical,” admits incoming Times TV critic James Poniewozik. “In symbolic and historical terms,” writes Slate’s Jessica Winter, “it’s terribly sad… a program launched to help poor kids keep up with rich kids is now being paywalled so that rich kids can watch it before poor kids can.” Vulture’s Josef Adalin accuses Sesame Workshop and HBO of establishing “a new, Downton Abbey–style class system for Sesame Street: Middle- and upper-class kids get the benefit of the latest Sesame Street lessons first, while poorer children will now be nine months behind their financially better-off peers.” And the Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg posits that the arrangement sorts children “into tiers: those whose parents and schools will pony up for timely new episodes, and those who will have to wait.”

"Sesame Street" spoofs HBO's "Game of Thrones"

To which I say, the letter of the day is C, and C is for Calm down. The immediate must-see factor of these new episodes is being just a touch overstated; it’s not like four-year-olds are getting on Twitter and spoiling new episodes of Sesame Street like it’s Game of Thrones, or that they’ll likely even notice the lag for those 35 episodes, given that there are — and this not an exaggeration — thousands more. I watch Sesame Street with my two-year-old, and I can assure you that she gives (and forgive me for using language I’m doing a surprisingly good job of curbing around her) not one half of a fuck whether the episode she’s watching is new or old, as long as Elmo or Abby is in it.

Is it unfortunate that we’ve come to this — that a cash-flush TV empire has to step up to keep the lights on at television’s longest-running educational program, a triumphantly impactful national treasure that should be, by all metrics including financial, a fabulous success? Of course it is. But that horse left the barn a long time ago; as Rosenberg rightly points out, “The show is a perfect example of the kind of thing that many of us feel instinctively ought to be some sort of public trust, but that we’re not exactly lining up to pay for as if the show were public infrastructure.” And as Criticwire’s Sam Adams summarizes, “The villain, in other words, isn’t HBO, and it isn’t Sesame Street: It’s us, or at least the political culture we’ve allowed to flourish.”

So yes, it’s easy to get hung up on the wiring of this particular piece of machinery, to wring one’s hands with implications and ramifications and gated-community metaphors, but the endgame is this: Sesame Workshop will keep making Sesame Street, they will make more of it than they were going to, and all of those episodes will still air on PBS, where everyone can see them. This is an unalloyed good, and frankly, the only way I can imagine the affluent kids who watch that show getting snooty about the nine-month window is if they hear about it from their sky-is-falling parents.