What We Should Be Asking About ‘Sesame Street’

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“Sesame Street” will soon be brought to you by the letters H-B-O. That’s right — the longest running children’s television show will now share the Street with the likes of “Game of Thrones” and “True Blood.”

Sounds wholesome, right? When I heard the news I began to conjure up images of Bert and Ernie in bed, sharing a drag, or Oscar snorting coke in his trash can.

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Did “Family Guy” predict the fate of “Sesame Street”?

All potential internet memes aside, this is very sad news. While HBO has painted it to be sunshine and roses (35 new episodes instead of 18! More money for the show for the next five years!), I lament this poor choice and worry that it will lead to the death of my beloved “Sesame Street.”

To understand the full implications of the merger, here’s a quick history lesson: The Public Broadcasting Station, or PBS, exists because of the Public Broadcasting Act, which was signed into law in 1967 to provide financial assistance for non-commercial TV and radio broadcasting. The creation of public broadcasting was a small part of a push to help our country overcome inequality and poverty through governmental oversight. The move created a plethora of programs intended to close the socioeconomic gap, and out of this ideal “Sesame Street was born.

One purpose of public broadcasting was to bring greater educational programming to the public. Described as the “classroom of the airs,” PBS has brought a wide range of arts, science, and educational programming to the airwaves that otherwise simply wouldn’t exist, while making it accessible to all Americans.

The intention behind “Sesame Street” was to provide educational content to children aged 2 to 5. The target audience was low-income and inner-city children, who were most in need of “pre”school readiness skills and severely behind their more privileged peers. (In fact, researchers have demonstrated that “Sesame Street” is as effective as preschool in providing children with school readiness skills!) Cookie Monster singing about eating cookies all day isn’t just cute — the programming provides academic skills, such as letter recognition or pattern development, all while teaching life skills and helping children understand empathy and diversity.

Photo: Muppets & Cast Photo, Sesame Street - Season 40 Anniversary Photo; photographed: Monday, February 24, 2009;  Noon at  Kaufman-Astoria Studios; Astoria, New York; Photograph: © 2009 Richard Termine. PHOTO CREDIT - Richard Termine
Photograph: ©2009 Richard Termine

Like me, you might share some childhood nostalgia for “Sesame Street.” (Ernie was always my personal favorite, but I’ve rediscovered how delightful Grover is while watching the show with my daughter. Actually, I think I had children just so I could re-watch “Sesame Street.” Just kidding. Sort of.) With the recent news, I’ve generated several questions that I hope all parents begin to ask about the merger.

1. What does this mean for the future quality of “Sesame Street”?

Remember when cable’s The Learning Channel (TLC) was actually about educational programming and learning, and not about Honey Boo Boo and creating birthday cakes? I vaguely do, but the Duggars are so strongly etched in my mind, it’s hard to recall. If “Sesame Street” is no longer a public show broadcast on a station committed to educational excellence, who will be accountable to ensure the show’s curriculum stays intact? HBO generated about $5 billion in revenue last year, and I question their motives in acquiring the most successful children’s show in television history. Who’s to say the integrity of the show will stand up to the marketing gods and maintain its educational purpose?

2. How does this merger change the target audience?

The intention behind “Sesame Street” was to provide educational access to the children who needed it the most — those who could not afford access to early education. And it’s worked: According to the aforementioned study, “the show has left children more likely to stay at the appropriate grade level for their age, an effect that is particularly pronounced among boys, African Americans and children who grow up in disadvantaged areas.” According to the Nielsen ratings, “PBS stations reach more kids aged 2-5, more moms with children under 6 years old and more low-income children than any other kids TV network.” Requiring parents to shell out at least $180 per year to watch 35 episodes of “Sesame Street” is outlandish and defeats the intention of the program. Will the merger continue to widen the gap between the affluent and the poor in this country?

3. How can “Sesame Street” address major issues in a timely manner?

To appease the haters, HBO will show “Sesame Street” on PBS — with a nine-month time lapse. Remember when Mr. Hooper died? Or when Hurricane Sandy destroyed parts of New York and New Jersey? Or when the attacks on September 11 changed our sense of safety and security in America? “Sesame Street” addressed these issues and turned tragedy into appropriate teachable moments for preschoolers. With a nine-month delay, these episodes simply won’t be relevant, and that’s a shame.

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Big Bird missing his friend, Mr. Hooper. Just one of the many examples of how Sesame Street has handled tragedy.

4.  Will a half-hour format really help kids?

HBO is also touting the merger as an educational gift to children because it will create 35 episodes per season, while financial restrictions have led PBS to currently create 18 episodes each season. What hasn’t been advertised as boldly is that the current hour format of the show will be reduced to 30 minutes. I’m struggling to understand how 35 30-minute episodes is better than 18 one-hour episodes.

And, I admit — I am THAT mother who doesn’t let her daughter watch much television. But I have a soft spot for “Sesame Street,” and it’s the only show I feel comfortable letting my 3-year-old watch for a full hour. I usually (and happily) snuggle in with her so we can view it together. The show makes me laugh, and with its wide range of sketches that hit on a multitude of school readiness skills, it’s an experience my daughter and I can share. But reducing “Sesame Street” to only 30 minutes leaves the temptation to make it flashier, more simplistic, and, frankly, a watered down version of its former self. And that’s television that I just can’t get behind.

5. Is this the beginning of the end of public broadcasting?

Perhaps I’m being melodramatic, but I’m a firm believer in what public broadcasting has been able to provide: a space for educational programming to exist in America. I can’t help but wonder if this change will erode public broadcasting, which has committed itself to quality programming that just doesn’t exist the same way anywhere else on television.

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Zoe, I’m depressed too.

I may join Cookie Monster in a few cookies tonight, and next time pledge season happens, I’ll be lending my financial support to PBS.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Great article. Makes me want to cry. In a world where everything is being watered down, Sesame Street was that one thing you could rely on.

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