“Sesame Street” to air on HBO; what does it mean for PBS’ future?

Starting this fall, PBS staple “Sesame Street” will no longer call PBS its main home. In a deal announced today, the show will be moving to HBO for new episodes.

The New York Times has details, but to summarize: HBO will pay an undisclosed amount to Sesame Workshop (the producers of “Sesame Street”). This will allow Sesame to increase the number of “Sesame Street” episodes produced, from the current 18 per season to 35. Sesame also has plans to produce a few spin-off series. HBO also will get some back episodes of “Sesame Street,” plus reruns of a few other Sesame Workshop shows.

As part of this deal, the new episodes will be exclusive to HBO (and its HBO Go/Now streaming services) for nine months, before airing on PBS at no cost to the public broadcaster (they currently pay a fee to Sesame Workshop). As a consequence, Amazon Video and Netflix will no longer carry “Sesame Street” episodes. Finally, “Sesame Street” will go from an hour to a half-hour starting this fall.

The upsides of “Sesame Street”‘s channel hop

I can see why Sesame Workshop went this route. PBS funding has never been the main means of Sesame Workshop’s funding (less than 10% of its funds, per the article). However, even that’s perennially threatened by Congressional budget cuts, spearheaded by conservatives who dislike government funding for PBS. Going with HBO keeps the show’s future out of the hands of such penny-pinching.

On top of that, while the show still has decent ratings, many kids watch “Sesame Street” through streaming services instead of on PBS.

Finally, the show’s seen its DVD sales dwindle in recent years, per the broader decline in DVD sales.

Overall, the show deal keeps the beloved educational show on the air, while providing HBO with a major new series to tout for its pay TV/streaming services. Content-wise, I’d expect the show to stay the same. While the channel’s now associated with “Game of Thrones,” HBO’s had success historically with family programming. Said programming dates back to HBO airing “Fraggle Rock” and “Babar” in the 80s and early 90s.

Future of public broadcasting?

However, my concern is what this deal means for PBS, plus the idea of public broadcasting. For starters, “Sesame Street” isn’t just any PBS show, but one of its most successful and iconic ones. It might be argued that “Sesame Street” is the most iconic PBS show, period. The fact “Sesame Street”‘s producers had to turn to a specialty pay cable channel for funding sets a bad precedent. If PBS’ biggest hit can air on commercial channels for more money, what’s to stop other shows in PBS’ lineup from doing the same?

The deal also casts PBS as a “secondary” channel akin to a minor TV station airing syndicated reruns. (“It’s still on PBS! They still get to air the show! …Eventually…after HBO’s done with it…”) It seems to diminish PBS’ stature as a broadcaster and undermine the idea of public broadcasting itself. It also begs the question whether PBS should exclusively or primarily get first-run, new material. Some, such as Vulture and Slate, have noted it feels a bit classist, given the reasons “Sesame Street” was created in the 1960s.

There’s also that this just lends credence to conservatives’ anti-PBS-funding arguments. “Sesame Street” is often cited as a major reason against cutting PBS’ funds. However, the show making a deal with HBO takes away one of PBS’ defenders’ stronger tactics. “If a major PBS show can get most of its funding from a commercialized, private source like HBO, why bother funding PBS as much or at all?,” or so arguments will go.

While it’s true kids won’t care if “Sesame Street” is delayed by nine months or in reruns, their parents might mind. This might affect future PBS pledge drives. Wouldn’t this deal just give some viewers less reason to donate money, if they know “Sesame Street” is doing fine thanks to HBO? They might agree with those that argue “Wild Kratts,” “Dinosaur Train,” and even PBS’ primetime lineup should arrange similar deals.

Finally, this deal points to the problematic or broken nature of PBS’ funding model. Unfortunately, PBS isn’t a fully or heavily government-funded broadcaster like the ones in every other country. The United Kingdom’s BBC is the most famous such public broadcaster. Of course, there’s little chance of PBS becoming another BBC, given pressure from commercial broadcasters and conservatives.

Possible solutions for PBS

Aside from more “Sesame Street”-style deals, a very generous wealthy conglomerate donor (Google?), or a less tight-fisted/hostile government, the only major long-term solution I can think of for PBS’ funding problems is to adapt Canada’s CBC’s model.

For the unaware, Canada’s national broadcaster is government backed, and airs no ads during its children’s programming. However, CBC does air normal commercials (for cars, beer, cereal, other CBC shows, etc.) otherwise during regular programming. CBC even airs sports, something that’s never really gotten airtime on PBS. CBC also still airs plenty of original programming, and doesn’t have any pledge drives.

While this is the only other model that’d appeal to conservatives (maybe), it does go against PBS tradition. It also brings the risk of the problems of commercialized broadcasting (pressure to air certain types of shows, etc.).

CBC’s had its own issues in recent years, as well. It sold off the rights to its popular sports program “Hockey Night in Canada” to Canadian cable/broadband goliath Rogers (think “Canadian Comcast”).

Overall, while this deal’s good for “Sesame Street,” the state of PBS/public broadcasting doesn’t look like it has a very bright future. At least, not without either a major fix or a change in mindset about publicly funded broadcasting.

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