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Berginski: HBO, Sesame Street Partnership Has Potential

By Staff | Aug 28, 2015

Are those fiddles I hear? Is Rome burning again? No? Okay, then why are you playing such sad tunes? Home Box Office and the non-profit company behind “Sesame Street” have made a deal in which new episodes of the show air on HBO first and PBS later? Why is that dirge-worthy? Agh! Don’t hit me, don’t hit me!

Starting this fall, new episodes of the beloved children’s television series will first air on HBO and on its on-demand and streaming services, HBO Go and HBO Now. The new episodes will then air on PBS and its member stations nine months later, and for free. With the new deal, Sesame Workshop said it will be able to produce almost twice as much content as it has in the past (currently a season is 18 new episodes, the deal would allow for 35) – possibly including a spinoff series and a new original education series.

But some are already crying foul. In a New York Times article, Parents Television Council president Tim Winter said “In order to watch original episodes of the most iconic children’s program in television history, parents are now forced to fork over about $180 per year and subscribe to the most sexually explicit, most graphically violent television network in America.” Center on Media and Child Health director Michael Rich said he feared the deal will cause Sesame Workshop to produce programming that is more commercial and less educational.

People on social media have alleged the deal creates, to quote the same NY Times article, “a perception of an economic class divide, with Sesame favoring privileged children and jettisoning its commitment to less-advantaged ones, whom the show was originally aimed at.”

Oh please. To answer the first charge, the episodes will still air on PBS, regardless of whether or not those parents have HBO in their TV packages. It’s not like anyone is forcing them to watch “Game of Thrones” or “Boardwalk Empire”. Plus PBS has had a program or two with some violence; does “Sherlock” ring a bell? (It aired on PBS as part of “Masterpiece Theatre”.) Or perhaps “Doctor Who”? Also, is seeing a celebrity and The Count count to six, or Grover talk about a preposition (on, in, around, etc.) as it aired more crucial to a child’s development? I would think learning those things is crucial, even if the episode is “old”. And who says re-runs are bad? That’s what half the programming on TV is anyway.

(F.Y.I., HBO has its own children’s programs too.)

On the second charge, Sesame Workshop produced things that were more commercial and less educational before the deal even took place. They produced the critic-favored box office flops “Follow that Bird” and “The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland”.

And now for the third charge. Again, it’s still going to be on PBS. I’m not going to repeat it anymore for fear that I’ll turn blue. But I must also ask this question: When PBS starts those segments where they do pledge drives, how many of you tune out? When I was a kid who watched “Sesame Street”, I know I did. In 2006, a PBS ombudsman acknowledged that some viewers have complained about these pledge drives. Some said they were “dull and boring”; they said it would drive people away; that they were angered and annoyed at the content and duration of the pledge shows or that they were taking the place of their favorite programs; and some felt that the programming offered during these drives seemed to clash with PBS’s mission. And it is probably some of those people who are NOW complaining over social media about a Sesame/HBO deal.

See here’s the thing, there are people who aren’t watching TV programming through cable or satellite subscriptions. There are also people who aren’t buying physical copies of movies, either. They’re watching programs through Internet-based media streaming services, like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Video. (Sesame Workshop tried to make deals with both the former and the latter too, by the way.) They’re also not sitting in front of TVs either. They’re watching on smartphones and tablets too.

Sesame Workshop realizes that times are changing, and their business model must change as well. The company has historically received less than 10 percent of its funding from PBS, which meant that it had to rely on merchandising and video and DVD sales for an even bigger chunk. But as stated in the above paragraph, more and more people are streaming instead of watching TV or buying physical copies of movies. To stay current, the company would almost have to make an exclusivity deal with a popular streaming service. Now this means that “Sesame Street” would be attracting a new audience segment (families who are “cable-nevers”, or have never bought cable or satellite TV), would bring back another audience segment (the “cord-cutters” who waved bye-bye to cable and satellite a long time ago) and would also retain the audience that put them on the map (the people who still watch TV). It makes all the more sense.

It also wouldn’t be the first time HBO and “Sesame Street” have crossed paths. A few days ago a friend of mine showed me a clip in which “Sesame Street” characters parodied “Game of Thrones” characters while, at the same time, playing musical chairs. I thought it was cute, he thought it was hilarious. Maybe “Girls” or “True Detective” can be parodied next? There isn’t a dearth of material on either side.

HBO and “Sesame Street” could be a match made in heaven.

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