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GENTRIFYING THE ‘STREET’
August 13th, 2015 by Clark Humphrey

sesame street fever

Since this entry is all about a program that’s all about “learning,” let’s start with the facts.

Starting this next season, and for at least the next five years, new episodes of Sesame Street will appear first on HBO and its online streaming service, along with selected old episodes.

Street reruns will still appear on PBS, in hour and half-hour formats. After a nine-month HBO exclusive “window,” the new episodes will appear on PBS also.

Up to this point, Sesame Workshop (née Children’s Television Workshop), the indie nonprofit that’s made the show these 46 years, has relied on two main streams of funding:

  1. The same corporate donations and government grants upon which all PBS shows rely; and
  2. its own licensed merchandising, DVD/record sales, etc.

With the industrywide collapse of CD/DVD sales, the latter has been a less reliable source of money.

And with more PBS Kids shows on the daily schedule vying for the same corporate/government bucks, the former has also been less lucrative.

As production money got harder to get, the Street got fewer and fewer episodes every season. But with HBO’s money, the show will produce 35 episodes next season, up from 18 the year before. (In its early days, the show produced 130 hours a year.)

At the network’s 1970 launch, Sesame Street was essentially PBS’s first hit. It was one of three series (the others were Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and The French Chef) that continued on from PBS’s even more-underfunded predecessor, NET (National Educational Television).

It’s not hard to say there would have been no Nova, no Frontline, no Masterpiece Theatre without the Street’s initial popularity, drawing audiences to the previously little-watched local “educational” channels.

While its ratings, its episode orders, and its merch sales have shrank in recent years, it remains the third longest running “scripted” show on American TV. (Only General Hospital and Days of Our Lives, among currently in-production shows, have lasted longer.)

You can now make up your own “Sesame Street on HBO” joke here. Many already have. About Carrie Bradshaw and the gang turning Bert and Ernie’s tenement into a ritzy condo; or about Elmo facing a Game of Thrones surprise slaying; or about Big Bird and Oscar as Tony Soprano’s newest henchmen.

Just remember that, along with the “naughty” sitcoms and the “artistic violence” dramas, HBO’s also the channel that gave you Fairie Tale Theatre, Little Lulu, and Fraggle Rock (another Jim Henson co-creation).

But without the Street having its exclusive home on the nonprofit network, what will PBS’s defenders invoke when the Republicans next threaten to cut off its (relatively paltry and very incomplete) federal funding?

Time says HBO pursued the Street because it really wanted to get more young viewers hooked on its on-demand and streaming platforms.

Jessica Winter at Slate says the move symbolizes “the ultra-efficient sorting process of socioeconomic privilege,” and compares it to the drastic cuts faced by Head Start and other pre-K programs for non-rich kids.


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© Copyright 2015 Clark Humphrey (clark (at) miscmedia (dotcom)).