For more than four decades, the television show Sesame Street has existed to teach children lessons. Today’s lesson is that people without disposable household income are in an inferior position and should be happy to receive secondhand goods.
The original purpose of Sesame Street was to provide uplifting educational programming to the widest possible audience of young children. Yesterday, the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit that produces the program, announced that for the next five years, new episodes will not run on the nonprofit, over-the-air Public Broadcasting Service, but will be distributed through HBO, a premium cable channel owned by the for-profit Time Warner media megacorporation.
In the press release, Sesame Workshop CEO Jeffrey Dunn described the arrangement as “a true winning public-private partnership model.” What does this winning model entail? It entails removing public goods and services from the commons, to repackage them as luxury products for affluent consumers.
Sesame Street was founded with grant money from charitable foundations and the federal government, on the premise that children’s broadcasting is a public trust. Although Sesame Workshop, through the years, developed a licensing and merchandising empire that covered most of its costs, Big Bird has been brought out whenever a politician threatens to reduce taxpayer contributions to public broadcasting, as a potent symbol of cultural democracy.
Now Sesame Street will be restricted to a network that reaches less than one-third of American households. According to the announcement, with the money it gets from HBO, Sesame Street “will be able to produce almost twice as much new content as previous seasons.” And poor kids won’t be able to see any of it.
Or, more precisely, they will be able to see it after the expiration of a nine-month HBO window of exclusivity—at which point the no-longer-new episodes will be passed on to PBS, while the children whose parents can afford to pay for premium cable are watching new-new episodes. The old Sesame Street block has been gentrified, so that HBO can build a sleek high-rise with a separate poor door.
Sesame’s business has struggled in recent years because of the rapid rise of streaming and on-demand viewing and the sharp decline in licensing income. About two-thirds of children now watch “Sesame Street” on demand and do not tune in to PBS to watch the show.
The children who are watching Sesame Street on demand through Amazon and Netflix will also lose access to the show under the HBO deal, the Times reports. Online viewership of new episodes will be available solely through HBO’s own services until the nine months are up; older episodes will be available through the PBS Kids service*.
This is the state of the public interest. Three years ago, in a 2012 presidential debate, Republican nominee Mitt Romney felt comfortable enough challenging PBS to suggest he would kill its federal subsidy if elected. I’m not sure if any of the Republican candidates have brought it up this year, because their first round of primary debates was proprietary to the Fox News Channel. To get it through my TV provider would have cost $79.99 a month.