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'Sesame Street' Moves to a New Upscale Neighborhood: HBO
January 16, 2016  | By Monique Nazareth  | 4 comments

Sesame Street
starts its 46th season at 9 a.m. ET Saturday with two new episodes and a new address.   The public television staple has moved to a new upscale neighborhood — HBO.   And with the move, come changes:  Elmo can now afford to live in a brownstone, Cookie Monster has a place above Hooper’s Store, Big Bird moved his nest into a tree, and even Oscar gets out of the trash can to pop up in recycling and comps bins.   

But do these upgrades come at a price? That’s what many critics have asked.  Parents Television Council President Tim Winter complained to the New York Times parents would be forced to “subscribe to the most sexually explicit, most graphically violent television network in America.”

Dr. Bill Baker, President Emeritus of Educational Broadcasting Corporation, the parent company of the public stations WNET-TV and WLIW-TV and a journalist in residence at Fordham University told TVWW,  “I think any time a program for kids feels upscale there is a real risk for the poor kids who may not be able to relate to the subject and hence feel less inclined to watch and use the program's valuable content.”

Despite the legitimate concern over how this could impact the mission and perhaps even the content of this beloved show, HBO might have just thrown Sesame Street a crucial lifeline.  This collaboration came about because of numbers even the Count von Count couldn’t laugh at.  Namely an operating loss, reported to be $7.4 million in fiscal year 2015 and as high as $21.7 million over the last 3 years. The financial situation was made worse by the drop in DVD sales, which used to pay for much of the production costs, just 10 percent of which came from PBS licensing fees.   

"Without this five-year funding commitment from HBO, we would not have a sustainable funding model that would allow for the continued production of the show," Jeff Dunn, CEO of Sesame Workshop, told The Hollywood Reporter when the news of the deal broke last summer.

Sesame Workshop now has the funding for more original episodes -- 35 instead of 18. However those will be just 30 minutes long rather than the hour long show we’ve known all these years. They’ve already prepped us for this shorter format. As some may have noticed PBS changed its reruns of Sesame Street to 30 minute long episodes in mid November.     

Sesame Workshop was seeking out a collaborative partner for a while before this deal. But was HBO the best choice?  Baker says yes: “The upside, of course, is that Sesame has more money to make its wonderful programs. That's good and they have another outlet to reach people, albeit I doubt that HBO is a go-to kids destination.  And the costs to PBS are reduced for programs. I just would not have made such a choice and worked in the family and mindset of public media due to it's philosophical purity and strategic direction.”

Perhaps HBO execs are hoping this arrangement makes them more of a go-to kids destination. They get a well respected show with a built in audience as all of us grew up on Sesame Street. It’s also a way for them to deal with stiff competition in the children’s programming market with streaming outlets like Amazon, HULU and Netflix offering original and pre produced shows, as well as other cable channels like Disney, Sprout and Nickelodean. (My own test case, my 4-year-old son would rather watch Tumble Leaf, Paw Patrol, or Doc McStuffins than watch an episode of Sesame Street.)

Other changes are in the air: new preschool-relevant themes including an emphasis on teaching kids emotional control, new show open and closing songs, an updated set and a new bilingual Hispanic character, “Nina” played by Suki Lopez. Many of us mourned the loss long time Sesame Street resident, Maria (played for over four decades by Sonia Manzano) who left the show after season 45.   
Sure we’ll get less face time with the neighborhood's older residents, like Bert and Ernie, Big Bird, and Oscar, in favor of the “younger” group Elmo, Abby, Cookie Monster and Rosita, but I’m not sure the kids will mind that. I will miss the parody segments of movies and popular TV shows, not to mention all the fun star cameos. Sesame Workshop points out, kids don’t get the references and besides, kids are often viewing these shows on their own thanks to tablets and smart phones and not with their parents as they used to when they watched it on TV.

It may not be all bad for PBS either. It still gets to air old episodes of Sesame Street and they’ll inherit season 46 in the fall, putting it just 9 months behind HBO and a year behind where it would have been had it not been for this move, assuming it could have survived another season without it.   

But Baker worries that PBS may suffer in another way:
“It sets a precedent that a commercial entity can help fund public media. That gives the government and philanthropy and the audience (the usual supporters) to think maybe this is a model for all programming and allowing them to back off. IT IS NOT! Most of the critical programming on PBS has no possible commercial support or interest, including the new and developing kids programs which will teach kids in the 21st Century in perhaps even a better way than Sesame Street.  Of course the educational, documentary, news, science and other mainline programs are also examples.”  

Having observed first hand the viewing and media habits of Sesame Street’s target audience, I for one am hopeful about the new show. I recognize that change is a necessity in public broadcasting as it is in all aspects of our life. And my household will be tuning in on Saturday to see this new neighborhood with the hope that it’s still sunny days and everything’s A-okay.

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Feb 13, 2023   |  Reply
Interestingly, my four year old also preferred most any PBS show over Sesame Street (Peg+Cat is my favorite), until they switched to the 30 minute format. Now she'll happily watch Sesame Street.
Jan 16, 2016   |  Reply
Maybe Bert and Ernie will get married now.
Jan 15, 2016   |  Reply
This change hurts my kids mostly with the subscription services. My kids used to watch Sesame Street through Netflix and Amazon Prime. The HBO deal got the old shows removed from both. Even the British variant, The Furchester Hotel, has been pulled off YouTube. We're not subscribing to an adult service for one kid's show. If HBO wants to win us over, they should give it away free on the Sesame Street Go app, which also had the full episodes removed. My kids will have to find something new to watch. It's a sad day in the neighborhood.
Jan 15, 2016   |  Reply
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