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Bert and Ernie are moving to a ritzy new neighborhood: HBO. The unambiguously awesome duo, along with the rest of the gang from Sesame Street, are headed to the pay-cable giant later this year as part of a potentially landmark five-year deal designed to help HBO counter the growing threat from premium competitors Netflix and Amazon. Under the agreement, HBO will become the exclusive home for first-run episodes of Sesame Street, airing the show — in English and Spanish — on its linear channel as well as via HBO Go, HBO Now, and HBO on Demand. Kids whose parents can’t afford HBO won’t be cut off entirely, however. HBO will let PBS and its stations air reruns of the most recent Sesame Street seasons nine months after they debut on HBO. But the agreement also clearly establishes a new, Downton Abbey–style class system for Sesame Street: Middle- and upper-class kids get the benefit of the latest Sesame Street lessons first, while poorer children will now be nine months behind their financially better-off peers.
Not surprisingly, Sesame Street producer Sesame Workshop* and HBO put a positive spin on their pact. According to the two companies, the upside of the deal is that PBS stations will now get episodes of Sesame Street for free, while Sesame Workshop will “be able to produce almost twice as much new content as previous seasons” for the show. Jeffrey Dunn, CEO of Sesame Workshop, said the deal “represents a true winning public-private partnership model. It provides Sesame Workshop with the critical funding it needs to be able to continue production of Sesame Street … It gives HBO exclusive pay cable and SVOD access to the nation’s most important and historic educational programming; and it allows Sesame Street to continue to air on PBS and reach all children, as it has for the past 45 years.” A press release from HBO also included a quote from Sesame Street co-founder (and unassailable kids’ TV icon) Joan Ganz Cooney in which she puts the best face on the move. “Over the past decade, both the way in which children are consuming video and the economics of the children’s television production business have changed dramatically,” Cooney said. “In order to fund our nonprofit mission with a sustainable business model, Sesame Workshop must recognize these changes and adapt to the times.” Translation: With a Republican Congress threatening to cut off funding for PBS, this deal was probably the best way to ensure the near-term future of Sesame Street.
HBO similarly sought to paint the agreement as a public service, issuing a statement that began by stating its happiness at being able to “secure the future of Sesame Street and Sesame Workshop’s mission for the nation’s kids and families.” The massively profitable network, of course, also had another motive for the deal: It wants to make sure parents looking for programming options for their kids consider HBO a must-have service. Streaming rivals Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have both made catering to kids a major priority, citing data showing young folks stream early and often. In 2012, Netflix made a huge output deal with Disney that fully comes online next year, bringing with it all of the Mouse House’s family-friendly live-action and animated films. The company has also done deals for old episodes of Reading Rainbow and is working on new versions of Magic School Bus and Degrassi, while also launching a slew of its own kiddie originals. Amazon Prime has similarly made development of new children’s content a priority. In addition to new episodes of Sesame, HBO is also licensing 150 vintage episodes of the show (most likely to beef up its on-demand library) and agreed to produce a new Sesame Street–Muppet spinoff series. (HBO has a long relationship with the Muppets, having aired the Jim Henson–created Fraggle Rock back in the early 1980s.)
In some ways, the HBO-Sesame agreement is a positive for advocates of quality educational programming for children. For the next five years, execs and producers at Sesame Workshop don’t have to worry about where their funding will come from, and, most likely, will actually have a much bigger budget to produce more and better content. PBS and its member stations also will have a little bit more money on hand to spend on other kids’ shows (though perhaps not much: In 2012, Slate put the network’s contribution to Sesame Street’s budget at a modest $4 million annually). It’s also true that most Sesame Street episodes aren’t exactly pegged to current events, nor do educational trends shift so quickly that a nine-month delay between the HBO and PBS airing of episodes will irreparably harm less well-off kids. Children whose parents can’t afford HBO aren’t being totally cut off.
And yet, today’s deal is absolutely a landmark, and not in a good way. For more than 40 years, Sesame Street has belonged to virtually every kid in America equally. You didn’t need to have cable to travel to Sesame Street, just a TV set. Every kid learned the same lessons at the same time. And when big things happened in the world, Sesame Street comforted all kids at the same time: The show’s post-9/11 episodes helped every child make sense of their grief, not just those whose parents were able to spend $15 a month on a TV subscription. But even if the practical effects of this agreement aren’t that dramatic, on a philosophical level, this is a very big deal. At a time when both Democratic and Republican candidates are railing against the rising tide of inequality in America, one of our nation’s great equalizers — public TV — has agreed to partially abandon what is perhaps its most important asset to a for-profit corporation. HBO isn’t the bad guy here: It wouldn’t have been able to make this deal if Sesame Workshop felt the future of Sesame Street were vibrant and secure on PBS. This happened because our dysfunctional political system has made what ought to be a universally accepted principle — quality educational programming should be free and easily available to all kids, regardless of their parents’ income level — somehow controversial. Somewhere today, Mitt Romney is smiling.
*A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to Sesame Workshop as the Children’s Television Workshop.