Today, the news came down that Sesame Workshop — the not-for-profit organization responsible for, among other things, producing Sesame Street for PBS, where it has lived for 45 years — is taking Elmo, Oscar and Big Bird to HBO. The press release explains that in return for enabling Sesame Workshop to make “almost twice as much new content as previous seasons,” HBO will have the exclusive right to air new Sesame Street episodes on their various networks for nine months — after which PBS will get to broadcast them for free.
Which all sounds well and good…except for the nagging feeling that Sesame Workshop has had to turn to HBO because we, as a culture, haven’t lived up to our end of the bargain: PBS would produce for us a monumentally important television show and give it to us for free and, in return, we’d support PBS and allow them to continue. At this stage in Sesame Street’s august history, you don’t get in bed with HBO because you need a bigger stage, or exposure, like some fledgling doo-wop group signing with Berry Gordy: Sesame Street “reaches 156 million children across more than 150 countries.”
No, the only reason you sign this deal with HBO is because you need the money. And they need the money because people like me — yes, I’ll own up to it — don’t buy the umbrellas or tote bags during the PBS pledge drives. We don’t give back. We don’t put fuel in the tank of the car we borrowed.
I should know better: I was one of those kids that Sesame Street was invented to help. I was born in the Bronx in the 1970s, when urban school systems were so taxed of resources that getting a quality preschool and elementary school education wasn’t a guarantee. Sesame Street was designed to teach kids who maybe didn’t have teachers who gave a damn, or two parents to read to them at night, or access to well-stocked libraries. While there have been many shows like it since, Sesame Street was the first to shoulder the immense burden of transforming the idiot box into an advancement tool. The brainchild of the late Jim Henson was, as HBO’s CEO Richard Plepler and President Michael Lombardo rightly said, “the most important preschool education program in the history of television.”
And we let it starve.
Not that HBO would be a bad place for Sesame Street: Despite what you may think of the cable home of Girls, The Wire and Entourage, they’ve a long tradition of children’s programming as well, including Henson’s own Fraggle Rock, and don’t need to count on donations when subscribers will do just fine. And since the Renaissance, patrons have subsidized art; for a corporate patron to step in and ensure the future of a Good Thing is, itself, a Good Thing.
It’s just that Sesame Street was ours…and we’re supposed to take care of our own.
Marc Bernardin is the Deputy Editor of Playboy.com. This might be the most important song of his childhood: