Today’s episode of Sesame Street is brought to viewers by the letters H, B and O. Well, maybe not today’s, but starting this fall, new episodes of the children’s show will be airing first on the cable network and its streaming outlets. The unexpected announcement about Sesame Street making a move to HBO is sure to raise eyebrows about the nonprofit Sesame Workshop moving its show off PBS to a premium network, be good for a few jokes on late night TV (comedians on HBO have always touted the freedom to use cuss words and show “naughty parts”), and make business sense in the changing “television” environment.
Under the deal between Sesame Workshop and HBO announced Thursday, the premium cable channel and its streaming apps will air first run Sesame Street episodes exclusively for the next five years. In addition, the cash-strapped workshop will increase production of the show from 18 to 35 episodes per year and create a spinoff series. Old Sesame Street episodes will also be removed from rival streaming video outlets and presumably be reintroduced on HBO.
What about children whose parents cannot afford cable outlets? After all, as a non-cable venture, the show did help generations of lower income children learn letters and numbers. Critics of the deal are claiming that it will force parents of small children to pay for HBO and its sexually explicit and violent content. However, PBS, the network that did air the show for 45 years, will still air Sesame Street episodes, but not for nine months after they first air on HBO, a time period that does not matter to children who regularly watch old episodes now.
In addition, the partnership offers HBO funding for Sesame Workshop, which lost money in 2014, to maintain its quality and expand how much content it produces. They traditionally funded a lot of their operations from sales of DVDs (which has dropped considerably), licensing merchandise from the show (everything from “Tickle Me Elmo” to apparel), and PBS.
Sesame Street has always catered to two audiences: the preschoolers for whom it was created and the parents who, prior to iPads and headphones, had to listen to the episodes over and over. The show has drawn a who’s who of celebrity guests from First Ladies, recording artists, movie and television stars, newscasters and more. The parodies are clearly for parents who get that Homelamb is a parody of Homeland; True Mud, a takeoff on True Blood; Birdwalk Empire, a version of Boardwalk Empire; House of Bricks, a takeoff on House of Cards; and Game of Chairs is a spoof of Game of Thrones. Their preschoolers clearly are not familiar with the original shows. Children just like seeing the puppets; parents get the jokes. (Yes, the show does parodies of network television shows too, such as their 30 Rocks, Desperate Houseplants, and A’s Anatomy skits.)
Now, however, the economics of the “television” industry are changing drastically. More people do not even watch a television set anymore, watching on a computer or mobile device. The explosion of streaming video is creating a generation of children who watch shows on demand wherever they are (as opposed to the kids in their late teens now who watched them over and over on DVDs or even videos, but had to be in front of a TV set to watch them). Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are all offering and/or planning more children’s programming. So, the Sesame Street move to HBO makes sense for both of their futures (but will undoubtedly be good for some jokes about the network’s content clash).
Written and directed by Dyanne Weiss
Sesame Workshop: Sesame Workshop and HBO Announce Five-Year Partnership
Los Angeles Times: ‘Sesame Street’ joins HBO, in sign of children’s shows’ value
New York Times: ‘Sesame Street’ to Air First on HBO for Next 5 Seasons
TIME: This Is Why HBO Really Wants Sesame Street
Slate: Why Sesame Street’s Move to HBO Is Both Great and Extremely Depressing
Photo courtesy of Sesame Workshop press materials