Did HBO Just Save Sesame Street (And Poison PBS)?

By  · Published on August 13th, 2015

Sesame Workshop

There are some easy jokes to be made about the announced deal for new seasons of Sesame Street to debut on HBO, but when the laughter is over it’s worth considering what this means for the show and its original home. Obviously it’s a good thing for the people who work on the program, as it means they’ll continue to get paid. And it’s good for the fans, who will continue to get new episodes starring Big Bird and friends, whether they see them on the premium cable channel when they first air or they catch them on PBS nine months later. So long as PBS continues to exist, that is.

Firstly, here’s more on why HBO is good for Sesame Street: as is noted in the New York Times article on the deal, Sesame Street has been hurting financially lately because of its avenues for revenue, mainly home video licensing, have been dwindling. HBO’s pickup is allowing Sesame Workshop to produce almost twice as many episodes as it does now (going from 18 per season to 35 per season), as well as a spinoff Sesame Street Muppet series and another, new educational program (they also get licensing on old episodes of Pinky Dinky Doo and the recently rebooted – but also cancelled-again The Electric Company).

Sure, there’s plenty of capitalist defense involved with arguing why the deal is a positive one, but that’s only if you’re not paying attention to how money and corporate hands have already long been a part of this “free” program. Presumably, though, making the eventual PBS airings of Sesame Street actually free-of-charge, as is implied by the press release, will at least mean they’ll no longer have ads for Caribbean resorts and Party City during the closing credits and there’ll be no chance of there being another widely disapproved of sponsoring partner like McDonald’s.

Here’s where it’s bad: Yes, moving initial premieres of new episodes to a pay channel and/or streaming service (the new, a la carte HBO Now) from a strictly public broadcast platform is definitely a classist issue, especially given that the deal has made Amazon remove any freely streaming episodes of Sesame Street (Netflix, too, but they’re just as much a pay outlet as HBO). The Sesame Street YouTube channel will likely follow suit.

But kids don’t realize when they’re watching old Sesame Street content, whether it’s recycled Elmo segments starring long-deceased Michael Jeter or a slightly dated parody of a grown-up show (say, HBO’s own Game of Thrones) they’re not familiar with. The only way it could become an issue for them is if Sesame Street introduces a new character as immediately popular as Elmo and Abby Cadabby and lower-income children who can’t afford HBO have to wait almost a year to see their latest installments.

And here’s where it could get worse: if HBO is going to pay for Sesame Street, then it would seem that Sesame Street doesn’t need PBS or what little government funding it receives through PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Sesame Workshop probably stipulated that they’re still part of PBS because they care about the children and also want to maintain their nonprofit mission, but if PBS went away they wouldn’t just quit in solidarity. They’d want to continue to exist, and HBO will allow them to.

Looking at the deal from the standpoint of conservatives like Mitt Romney and Scott Walker, who’ve been known to champion the idea of cutting funding to public broadcasting, this could be a step in a direction they favor. When threats are made to PBS in particular, the best defense is always as simple as, “but Sesame Street!”. PBS and Sesame Street are often thought of as being synonymous. Now they won’t be. Romney says he loves Big Bird and with this deal he and the rest of us can, still, without having to pay for it through our taxes or money borrowed from China.

Fortunately, PBS isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Government appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has never been higher and is set to stay at its current number ($445m) through at least 2018. Public television gets the majority of that money (though most is to support local stations), and even then it’s just a small part of their whole budget, so there’s no need to say goodbye to Daniel Tiger, Christopher Kimball and documentary programming from POV and Independent Lens thanks to Big Bird’s new situation. And for now the HBO deal is only contracted for another couple years beyond that, with no certainty that it will be renewed.

Now, if other programs wanted to follow Sesame Street’s lead and make similar deals, that could be an issue, and outside of funding threats PBS does tend to have other ongoing problems, such as criticisms that its programming leads too far left to be a balanced public service and scheduling matters like the recent proposal to move POV and Independent Lens out of their primetime weeknight slots. As the outcome of the latter proved, however, at the moment there are a lot of people ready to protest any changes in programming not to mention the should-be-inconceivable idea of PBS shutting down.

A final thought on the deal brings up a lighter question that isn’t answered yet by the released information: could HBO be interested in producing new Sesame Street feature films? Because it’s been 30 years now exactly since the release of the underrated Follow That Bird and about 16 years since the far less memorable The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland and nothing since. A Super Grover movie would do well right now, I’m sure. And after nine months, they could send that to PBS for a free broadcast window, too.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.