Partly Cloudy Days

Public broadcasting's commitment to children, caregivers and teachers remains.
August 20, 2015
 

Much has been written about last week’s surprise announcement that Sesame Workshop, producers of Sesame Street, have entered into a five-year deal with HBO that gives that premium TV channel an exclusive first-run window on future seasons of the iconic kids’ series.

The first inkling I had that something was up came the day before, when it was announced that in November, Sesame Street will be reduced to a single, half-hour airing each weekday. That it will no longer be an hour long wasn’t so shocking; PBS and the Workshop had been experimenting with a shorter, more teacher-friendly version since last September. However, I did wonder why it wouldn’t be aired as two back-to-back episodes like the other weekday morning PBS Kids’ shows.

Last Thursday, the other shoe dropped—hard. As with many others working at individual public television stations, we were unaware of financial problems at the Workshop or its search for a new production partner.

Before I delve further into this, it’s important to note that Sesame Street will continue to air on WILL for the foreseeable future. There will be no interruption of our daily Elmo allotment. New episodes will come to PBS, albeit nine months after they first air on HBO.

Will kids care? I doubt it. As any parent watching Frozen for the 414th time knows, children don’t appear to mind repeats. And when Sesame Street reflects timely events, it’s because someone has dusted off older segments like the oft-repeated story arc about Big Bird’s hurricane-demolished nest.

My personal concerns about the HBO deal are about the unintended messages they send to stakeholders such as parents, donors, and congresspersons.

I’d argue that Sesame Street hasn’t been the end-all, be-all of PBS Kids in a very long time, but it is the show that everyone knows. When the budget appropriation for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is up for renewal, “Big Bird” is shorthand for all of our education-based efforts, both on and off-air. “Don’t kill Big Bird” is a stronger statement than “Don’t derail Dinosaur Train,” especially for legislators who wouldn’t know Buddy the Dinosaur from Indominus Rex.

More troubling to me (and others) is that a premium TV channel will be given first dibs on a series initially created with public funds and designed expressly to help at-risk kids. It could be perceived as an indication that public broadcasting views those families as having less value than those who annually drop two C-notes for the privilege of watching Game of Thrones. I volunteer to read to preschoolers at Champaign’s Early Childhood Center as part of WILL’s Book Mentor program, so I can say with some authority that any such perception is NOT ture.

My belief is that Sesame Street hadn’t been solely about the letter Q and the number 6 in years. It had great symbolic value; it was the promise of all that public television could be, expressed in felt and feathers. That promise is still being kept every day through shows such as Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Curious George, Peg+Cat, Arthur, Odd Squad and half a dozen more.

Some things change. Sometimes, even changes once considered unthinkable can occur. One thing that has not—WILL NOT—change is that we will be here for you, on both sunny days and cloudy ones, and in every way that we can.

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