The news that the beloved children’s television program “Sesame Street” will begin airing on HBO, with new episodes coming to public broadcasting stations nine months after their initial run on premium cable, has prompted understandable dismay. The deal will allow “Sesame Street” to produce many more episodes per season than it did under its current revenue model, but as incoming New York Times television critic James Poniewozik pointed out on Twitter, the question is one of unpleasant perception: The show, he wrote, “is a landmark of free public service TV, so [the move] feels wrong.”
But this move to HBO ought to prompt more questions for us than for “Sesame Street” and the people who run it. The show is a perfect example of the kind of thing that many of us feel instinctively ought to be some sort of public trust, but that we’re not exactly lining up to pay for as if the show were public infrastructure.
This has been true from the beginning. The organization that would become the Children’s Television Workshop, and that developed “Sesame Street,” was supported by a mix of private funding and government grants. When the show was announced, the New York Times reported that “‘Sesame Street’ is budgeted at $8-million for its first 26 weeks. Half of that fund will come from the Carnegie and Ford Foundations, the other half from Federal funds coordinated by the United States Office of Education. The total, of which $1.5-million is still uncollected, will pay also for a year of continuous research into the learning and TV habits of youngsters, and the success of commercial television techniques in reaching them.”
Federal funding may have helped stand up “Sesame Street.” Writing in the Weekly Standard in 2012, Jonathan V. Last noted that “In 1981, the federal government pulled its funding from the [Children’s Television Workshop] because it was pretty obvious that Big Bird was big enough that he no longer needed taxpayer dollars. (It crept back in the form of government grants and a small portion of funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.) The Children’s Television Workshop had created not just an immensely popular program, but a mountain of intellectual property that could be profitably mined for decades. Which is exactly what they did.”
And the Times, in the story reporting “Sesame Street’s” move to HBO, noted that the show has gotten about 10 percent of its funding from PBS, which itself is supported by a mix of funding sources, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, corporate sponsorships and personal donations from viewers.
It’s no mistake that the Weekly Standard was heralding the way “Sesame Street” relies on market forces, rather than public support. “Sesame Street” may feel like a public resource, but it’s also been used as evidence that such resources can thrive on their own, and to suggest that programs that rely on public funding do so only because they aren’t viable on their own. This is perhaps the most common way to attack public funding for the arts, to suggest that taxpayer money is going to make things that no one wants, often because it’s sexual or abstract.
But HBO’s contract with “Sesame Street” simultaneously demonstrates, once again, that the show is a valuable commodity, and makes one of the best, most underlooked arguments for public arts funding. It’s not, as I’ve written countless times before, about whether art exists or not. It’s about whether people who don’t live in areas with museums, or who can’t afford cable, much less premium cable subscriptions, have access to arts and culture. Private funding can build museums, but it may take public money to subsidize skyrocketing admission. 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.
The move behind the HBO paywall won’t remove “Sesame Street” from the public airwaves entirely; everyone involved was smart enough to anticipate what a disaster that would be. But it does sort children into tiers: those whose parents and schools will pony up for timely new episodes, and those who will have to wait. It’s not slamming the door shut entirely on poorer children and poorer school systems. But the whole affair does inject a note of difference and separation into a show that was always dedicated to the eradication of such distinctions. This may not be the outcome that we want. But it’s the outcome we were willing to pay for.
Friendly neighbors may still meet on “Sesame Street.” Now, they’ll just be doing it nine months apart.