Sesame Street Is Moving to HBO, And Poor Kids Get Hand-Me-Down Episodes

Big Bird

When I was growing up, my sister and I had three channels: 7, 10, and PBS.

(Technically there was also what we called the “Bible Channel,” but we pretty much ignored that one.)

And PBS was special. It came on its own special dial. It told stories we recognized from books, like Ramona and Anne of Green Gables, and it also told stories about math and literature and science, and all of those stories started with Sesame Street.

Sesame Street was so much a part of our household, growing up, that my mom used it to mark the time. “How long until we get there,” we would ask, in the car, and my mom would say “90 minutes. One Sesame Street and one Mister Rogers.” (We didn’t have TV in the car; it was decades before that. But one of the first things that Sesame Street taught us was how long an hour was.)

When I look back at all the shows we watched on PBS, from Sesame Street to Square One TV, I’m struck by how many of those shows placed child characters in the middle of a cast of adults—and, more than that, made both children and adults integral parts of the community.

We had the little girl walking to the grocery store to get a loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter; we had Lady Elaine Fairchilde having to negotiate a compromise with Daniel Striped Tiger; we had a young Yeardley Smith working with the Mathnetters to solve “The Problem of the Missing Monkey.”

We had movies like Konrad, which is as much about Konrad’s mother as it is about the boy who arrives in the giant oil drum, and we had Anne and Marilla in the kitchen making dinner together.

And sometimes Anne made mistakes and sometimes Marilla made mistakes, and Maria and Luis didn’t believe Big Bird when he said Snuffy was real, and the sense I got, from watching all of this, was that we were all in this together.

This was what life was like: it was arguing with your roommate about whether to go to sleep or keep talking, it was working your way backwards through strange buildings after getting lost, it was figuring out how to provide appropriate guidance to a red-headed orphan or a 6-foot-tall yellow bird or a kid in an oil drum, it was grabbing a piece of chalk and saying “Let’s play What Do We Know?”

It was dealing with grouchy Monsters and anxious Monsters and that one Monster whom everybody loves even though he can never hold down a job.

I started watching Sesame Street again around 2005, when I was working my miserable job as a telemarketer. I would turn it on in the mornings as background noise as I got ready for my bus ride to work, mostly because I didn’t want to watch morning talk shows, and partially because I wanted to feel a bit of comfort in what was, at that time, a profoundly unhappy life. (I remember saying, aloud, to the people-I-knew-who-weren’t-really-friends: “I am profoundly unhappy.” It was both exaggerated and very true.)

I remember two things from this new version of Sesame Street: a song titled “We’re In With the In Crowd,” and Elmo’s World. I found Elmo’s World instinctively repulsive for reasons I did not fully understand until just now: the community was gone. It’s just Elmo, alone in a tricked-out bedroom, singing about himself and his goldfish and his crayon. Elmo doesn’t need anybody else. Elmo can look out the window and say hi to Mr. Noodle, but Elmo always stays indoors.

So that’s where we went, in a generation: from the little girl walking to the store to buy groceries to the child whose entire world is his bedroom. You don’t need me to tell you that these old episodes of Sesame Street are now “intended for grown-ups, and may not suit the needs of today’s preschool child,” or that parents have been arrested for letting their children walk to the park on their own. 

Sesame Street was originally designed for low-income children; I mean, it was designed for all children, but it was designed specifically so low-income kids could look at the television and see their world. It feels a lot harder for low-income families to look at Elmo’s World and see their world.

(That’s a presumption on my part, an automatic “how many low-income preschoolers have computers in their bedrooms like Elmo does?” and it may be incorrect. It may be that a lot of families are watching Elmo’s World on cheap tablets, and that kids of all income levels are still looking at Elmo and seeing something familiar.)

And now Sesame Street is moving to HBO. Sesame Street is doing this because it needs money, or, as the New York Times put it, “The partnership will allow Sesame Workshop to significantly increase its production of “Sesame Street” episodes and other new programming.”

Don’t worry, they say, we’ll still air Sesame Street on PBS. It’ll just be a half-hour long, though, and it’ll be reruns. We’ll air the new HBO episodes nine months later, and we’ll also pull Sesame Street from non-HBO streaming services like Amazon and Netflix, although you can still stream Sesame Street on PBSKids.

I don’t have a problem with reruns. I actually believe, for a show like Sesame Street—or Mister Rogers, or Square One TV—that reruns are essential. Kids get to sing along with the songs, and the academic and social concepts get stored in long-term memory. (Sing the Pointer Sisters’ pinball song. Right now.)

But this move to HBO is taking Sesame Street even further away from the community and putting it in the world of the single child, alone or with parents, in front of a computer or iPad. And the poor people literally get the cast-offs; the new HBO episodes will air on PBS nine months later, which is about the same amount of time it takes for a kid to outgrow a pair of pants and for a low-income mother to bring those pants home from the Goodwill for her child.

And they won’t be watching themselves, anymore. They’ll be looking at Sesame Street to understand the world, the same way I did when I was a child, but it will be a world that is no longer designed specifically for them.

It’s designed, like other television, just for them to watch.

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