When my son was still in the newborn potato phase — all eyes and couldn’t roll over — I went to the Los Angeles Zoo with a friend and her toddler. They arrived several hours before we did in order to get in an endless line the second the zoo opened in order to do a meet and greet with Elmo.
God help me, I thought, if I ever get up at the crack of dawn to meet an overgrown puppet stumbling around in a sweaty fur suit. I told my friend as much, and she gave me a bemused look and said: “You’ll get it soon.”
Now that my son is almost five and I’ve been exposed to many, many hours of “Sesame Street,” I get it. It is magic. It’s been perfect since it started airing in 1969, tackling basic education and issues ranging from incarcerated parents to HIV to food pantries in an age-appropriate manner.
And that’s why the recent announcement that HBO Max is going to be its home for the next five seasons is heartbreaking. This is not new: When HBO started airing the show in 2016, the shift away from the show primarily airing on the public airwaves began. But the HBO Max deal formalizes the tiered access that means those with more resources will see the most timely, important episodes first, and that’s ghastly.
Under the HBO Max deal, here are the release windows: Those with an HBO Max subscription — about $15 a month and an Internet connection required, mind you — will see episodes first. Those with access to PBS Kids from a browser, set-top box or the free app — and, of course, the ability to pay for the cable or Internet required and for the necessary equipment — will get them nine months after.
Here’s where it gets tricky. PBS Kids programming is also available on local PBS stations, but only if those affiliates opt in to carry it. If they do, viewers in those markets will also have access to belated episodes of “Sesame Street” for free if they have a TV that can access those stations.
That’s a lot of ifs, especially considering the demographic that watches PBS affiliates on TV: kids from poor families who don’t have access to other more expensive, harder to access children’s programming networks. According to PBS, children between the ages of 2-8 in homes that access TV over the air represent 13 percent of the population; these children watch three times as much PBS and their viewing makes up 37 percent of weekday viewing of PBS stations.
For HBO Max, all of this, obviously, is a smart business move. Yes, yes, capitalism, shareholder value, release windows, strong IP, library, blah blah I get it. Congrats on getting that extra cent on your earnings per share, and I hope you sleep well tonight. But honestly, if there was ever a TV show that needs to have zero barrier to watch, it’s “Sesame Street”.
Don’t scoff at the notion that “Sesame Street” is timely and what they do needs to be seen sooner rather than later. Just last week — and, notably, online through its Sesame Street in Communities initiative — the show tackled addiction with the introduction of a new puppet, Karli, whose mom is an addict. (And hoo boy get some tissues ready before you watch.)
This is necessary, vital content. This should be on linear TV, for free, available at the click of a button. Just like it used to be. The folks at Sesame Workshop are nothing short of miracle workers, and the segmentation of the media landscape doesn’t change that.
We’re a country that can’t get its head around the need for universal day care and pre-school (actually, Elizabeth Warren has a plan for that), but maybe we can take the first baby step and understand the need for universal “Sesame Street”.