A Not So Sunny Day On ‘Sesame Street’ and the Uncertain Future of PBS

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Sesame Street

Warner Media recently announced Sesame Street will be moving to HBO Max with additional content that will not be found anywhere else. Sesame Street content will include five new 35-episode seasons, annual specials, a family-centric live-action take on a late-night talk show titled The Not Too Late Show with Elmo, and a new Sesame Street spin-off. The push is indicative of the network’s recent attempt to create more family-friendly content for the streaming service which otherwise has a more adult reputation. The network also has other family-friendly content planned, some of which are from the same creative team.

Sesame Street, which is produced by the nonprofit organization Sesame Workshop, moved to HBO in 2015 after operating on an almost $11 million dollar loss. The show famously has been on PBS for decades and historically has been funded by donations from “viewers like you” and through public funding for the arts. But between budget cuts and dwindling DVD sales thanks to the rise of streaming services, the show began to lose money and needed a network with a large bank account to keep them afloat. To be clear, PBS does not own Sesame Street, Sesame Workshop does. PBS could not easily make up that loss of revenue in terms of its licensing fee. It is also important to note, while PBS does receive money from the federal government, a majority is spent keeping stations that cannot collect many viewer donations running. While Sesame Street‘s move to HBO isn’t inherently bad, it is concerning that the fate of the show’s airing on PBS is no longer guaranteed. Currently, the government barely makes up a significant percentage of PBS’s total budget (same for NPR). The government just guarantees that PBS remains free and apolitical whereas a mega-corporation risks a paywall or politicization. Warner Media and HBO might also censor Sesame Workshop in ways PBS and the government wouldn’t and haven’t in the past.

When HBO acquired Sesame Street, one major thing changed. While they are still syndicated on PBS, new content wasn’t offered to PBS viewers until nine months after it had aired on HBO.  With the new HBO Max announcement, that new content will come to PBS “at some point,” meaning there is no guarantee it will ever be accessible to viewers without a subscription to HBO Max. That doesn’t seem unreasonable when you compare it to Netflix getting the latest season of The Good Place nine months after it aired on NBC, but when it comes to PBS, and specifically Sesame Street, things get a little more complicated.

Sesame Street is a revolutionary television program that focuses on early education and has become the most widely viewed children’s program in the world, airing in more than 120 countries. Created by Joan Ganz Cooney, the goal of the show at its inception was to create engaging, educational programming for preschoolers, particularly from underprivileged backgrounds. Since 1969, children have learned from the fictional New York street that is home to Elmo, Big Bird, Cookie Monster, and many other beloved characters. Sesame Street has become more than a cultural phenomenon. In many ways, it has become a necessary part of childhood worldwide.

Sesame Street has been on public access television since before it was even PBS and instead known as National Educational Television (NET), which was founded in 1952 as the Educational Television and Radio Center. Following the creation of the Public Broadcasting Act (1967), the government-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was established and in 1969, the Public Broadcasting Service was born, debuting in 1970 and becoming the successor to NET. PBS has been around for nearly fifty years and it still reaches a large audience, particularly of children. In a press release after HBO acquired the rights to Sesame Street, PBS said, “that their stations reach more kids aged 2-5, more moms with children under 6 years old, and more low-income children than any other kids TV network.” That is a lot of children watching PBS and learning from Sesame Street and similar programming.

A study first written in 2015 but recently published in the American Economic Journal in February of 2019 found kids who had access to Sesame Street were “1.5 to 2 percentage points more likely to be at the grade level appropriate for their age.” The study also found boys, kids who grew up in poor counties, and Black children were particularly impacted by viewing Sesame Street. It is important to note though, that the study shows correlation, not causation. This means it cannot prove that watching Sesame Street was the cause of improved performance in elementary school. However, Melissa Kearney, who conducted the study, believes the results suggest that Sesame Street had an impact and said as much in an interview with the American Economic Association.

While this study mostly focuses on previous generations, kids today still watch television and still need Sesame Street. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2016, within the United States, 42 percent of 3-year-olds, 66 percent of 4-year-olds, and 86 percent of 5-year-olds were enrolled in pre-primary programs. While this statistic is much higher than it was when Sesame Street was first created, it is still not 100 percent. This means children are still relying on their parents and educational programming, like Sesame Street, to learn and prepare for Kindergarten.

Going back to that nine-month gap between new programing and the new deal with HBO Max, it begs the question: how long will Warner Media keep its syndication deal with PBS, and what does it truly gain from doing so?

Sesame Street

Children whose families would have difficulty affording HBO, let alone an HBO Max subscription are already at a disadvantage having to wait nine months for new content. Content that often includes important lessons on not only friendship, community, kindness, and honesty, but also on subjects rarely talked about in school, such as autism, incarceration, eating healthy, homelessness, and HIV/AIDS. Streaming services are proving to be the way of the future whether consumers want them or not. Additionally, with the Trump administration previously gunning for PBS’ funding, it is hard not to feel like access to free educational programming is on the way out in favor of a paywall. Access to PBS is necessary and should be as important to our country as public schools. For many kids, whether they are in pre-school or not, Sesame Street is an educational tool that teaches them the fundamentals of learning as well as valuable life lessons.

The future of public access television isn’t clear as more and more business models lean toward streaming services. Not to mention the meteoric rise in YouTube’s place in children’s screen time. Sesame Workshop, in addition to developing more content for HBO Max, outside of the Sesame Street franchise, is also creating shows for Apple’s new streaming service. While most of Sesame Street’s episodes, or at least chunks of episodes, are available on YouTube, only time will tell if HBO changes that as well. If HBO ends up buying Sesame Street or owning more syndication rights, the future could be very grim for educational programming.

At the end of the day, HBO should have never have had to buy the rights for Sesame Street, the program should have been able to sustain itself through government funding. While HBO currently allows PBS access to episodes for free at a much later date, there is no guarantee that the deal will stay forever. Access to free, educational programming that is proven to be beneficial to children across the nation should not be provided solely by corporations.

Private funding is not inherently bad if it just underwrites the ever-shrinking funding for public broadcasting. I worry though, that the monetization of educational content will eventually lead to no more public airing. That would mean only kids with the privilege to pay, who likely already go to preschool and get other access to education, will be able to view Sesame Street, thus desecrating Sesame Street‘s original mission and the mission of public access television in general. Of course, if our government-funded the education of children, especially children who are economically disadvantaged, this wouldn’t be a problem in the first place.