Social media had a mini meltdown last week when word got out that “Sesame Street” was pulling up stakes after 46 years and moving from PBS to HBO. “Whaaaaat?!?” screamed all of America in unison. “Sesame Street,” the literal poster child for public television, heading to pay-cable? “Sesame Street” and “Game of Thrones” airing on the same network? Is nothing sacred anymore? Is childhood dead? In the interest of assuaging our inner 6-year-old, let’s try to answer a few of these questions.
“Sesame Street” is owned and overseen by the nonprofit organization Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children’s Television Workshop). Over the years it’s been a target of conservative political ire. In 2011 columnist Ben Shapiro said the show is used to spread leftist propaganda and liberal politics. (I always suspected the letter “J” and the number “5” had certain communist leanings.) During the 2012 presidential campaign, GOP nominee Mitt Romney suggested “Sesame Street” would fare better in the open marketplace than on taxpayer-funded public television. (Turns out he was right. Although, to be fair, he wasn’t trying to help Sesame Workshop; he just wanted to defund public television.)
But it wasn’t republicans who ultimately doomed “Sesame Street” on PBS. Instead, it was more a result of today’s plugged-in youth market. Kids no longer wake up and park themselves in front of the television before going off to school. They spend all their time on smartphones and iPads. In moving to entertainment powerhouse HBO, Sesame Workshop is hoping to integrate with today’s emerging technologies. New Sesame Workshop CEO Jeffrey Dunn told the Los Angeles Times recently that two-thirds of children now view the show on-demand through streaming video. That means there’s less money to be made producing fresh content every week.
In the past PBS pledge drives made up 10 percent of the show’s budget. Declining donations and a drop in DVD sales over the last decade have cut into Sesame Workshop’s ability to effectively produce “Sesame Street.” But for a fraction of what it costs to shoot one episode of “True Detective,” HBO can bankroll Big Bird and friends for a year.
When it moves to HBO this fall, “Sesame Street” will jump from making 18 new episodes a year to 35. As part of this five-year deal, the new episodes will still trickle over to PBS, where they will air nine months after their HBO premiere. So kids will still get to see “Sesame Street” for free on PBS. In fact, the new deal will allow local PBS franchises to air the show without paying any fees. It works out pretty well for everybody: Sesame Workshop gets the budget boost it needs, PBS still gets “Sesame Street” reruns and the kids of 2020 get the chance to wander around some sort of interactive, virtual reality version of Mr. Hooper’s grocery store.
But what does HBO get out of this? Well, kids programming is one of the most critical areas of digital programming. Amazon, Hulu, Netflix and others are fiercely battling over children’s programming. Not because it’s so lucrative, but because it trains the next generation to be loyal to your product. Kids of a previous generation grew up watching “Sesame Street” on PBS and now obsess over “Downton Abbey.” Preschoolers of today will grow up staring at “Sesame Street” on their HBO NOW app and will evolve into lifelong cable subscribers.