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It’s Not ‘Sesame Street’s Fault They Went to HBO. It’s Ours.

It's Not 'Sesame Street's Fault They Went to HBO. It's Ours.

The news that HBO would be airing new episodes of “Sesame Street” occasioned an immediate flurry of social-media gags — what if Bert and Ernie were the cast of #TrueDetectiveSeason3? — and a less widespread but more intense burst of outrage from people who felt that a treasured public resource had suddenly been privatized.

The truth, as Todd VanDerWerff explains at Vox, is a little more complicated. Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children’s Television Workshop) has always been a private entity, one that got the bulk of its funding from sales of DVDs and other merchandise. That’s one of the reasons why Republican politicians have made “Sesame Street” a cornerstone of their argument that PBS doesn’t need government funding. As it turns out, they’re right. (I wonder if part of the anger at the deal is that it seems to vindicate a frequent GOP talking point.)

That doesn’t mean that the incredibly paltry amount one of the world’s richest countries spends on arts funding isn’t an unholy scandal, or that right-wing ideologues’ attacks on the literal pennies U.S. citizens spend on PBS isn’t a disingenuous culture-war salvo barely cloaked in the guise of fiscal responsibility. But as Time’s (soon to be the New York Times’) James Poniewozik pointed out on Twitter, the backlash against the “Sesame Street”-HBO deal is largely an emotional one, driven by the symbolism of a quasi-public institution pitching its tent in premium cable’s backyard. New “Sesame Street” episodes — of which, thanks to the influx of cash, there will now be 35 per season instead of 18 — will still air on PBS, but it will be nine months after their HBO debut. It’s not that people who can’t afford cable (or HBO Now) won’t be getting new episodes of “Sesame Street”: They’ll just be getting them a little later, like a lightly used hand-me-down toy. More importantly, given that “new” is an unimportant concept to the show’s intended audience, past episodes will be removed from Amazon and Netflix’s a la carte streaming services. (150 vintage episodes will eventually be available from HBO, but at the very least, that’s a jump from Netflix $7.99 a month to HBO Now’s $14.99, or more likely the one added on top of the other.) 

“Sesame Street” may be fine on its own, but as Alyssa Rosenberg points out in the Washington Post, the HBO deal is symptomatic of how we fund the arts — and, more critically, how they’re distributed.  Most of PBS’ funding goes not to programming but to stations, largely in rural areas, that can’t raise enough in donations to cover their operating costs. As Rosenberg writes, “Elmo products may keep ‘Sesame Street’ alive and cranking out new episodes, but it was the PBS pipeline that made sure children of all economic backgrounds had access to new episodes at the same time.” 

With households that get their TV over the air actually growing — cord-cutters have pushed the number as high as 60 million — HBO’s incursion on PBS’ territory feels a little like a declaration of war. But the real victims won’t be “Sesame Street.” They’ll be programming blocks like P.O.V. and Independent Lens, vital national showcases for documentary whose audience has suffered as PBS has prioritized programs like “Antiques Roadshow” and “Downtown Abbey,” and don’t have indulgent parents or plush toys to make up the difference. The villain, in other words, isn’t HBO, and it isn’t “Sesame Street”: It’s us, or at least the political culture we’ve allowed to flourish. It’s anyone who pays $15 a month for HBO and doesn’t contribute at least that much to PBS and still acts shocked and outraged that such a thing could happen. As Joe Adalian writes at Vulture:

Even if the practical effects of this agreement aren’t that dramatic, on a philosophical level, this is a very big deal. At a time when both Democratic and Republican candidates are railing against the rising tide of inequality in America, one of our nation’s great equalizers — public TV — has agreed to partially abandon what is perhaps its most important asset to a for-profit corporation. HBO isn’t the bad guy here: It wouldn’t have been able to make this deal if Sesame Workshop felt the future of Sesame Street was vibrant and secure on PBS. This happened because our dysfunctional political system has made what ought to be a universally accepted principle — quality educational programming should be free and easily available to all kids, regardless of their parents’ income level — somehow controversial.

Children’s programming strikes the most potent emotional chord, but the issue goes way beyond that. It’s about the deterioration of the public sphere, and the erosion, both through calculated attacks and general apathy, of the idea that we as a nation ought to have some things in common that aren’t limited to people who can afford them. Be mad if you like, but don’t take it out on Big Bird.

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