Sesame Street's move raises the question of what public broadcasting's place is in a massively multi-channel streaming universe.
Twitter and other social-news outlets were filled with images of Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Thursday, and mashups that blended Sesame Street characters with those from Game of Thrones and True Detective. Why? Because news leaked out that the company behind the classic kids’ TV show has signed a deal with HBO to broadcast the next five seasons of Sesame Street exclusively on the subscription-only service.
For many critics, this deal seemed to symbolize the decline of publicly-supported broadcasting in a massively multi-channel universe. And the fact that it involves one of the world’s most beloved pieces of children’s programming made the news of the HBO arrangement even more painful for some. MIT researcher Chris Peterson said the deal damages “one of the last few truly good things in the world.”
“The show is a perfect example of the kind of thing that many of us feel instinctively ought to be some sort of public trust,” wrote Washington Post blogger Alyssa Rosenberg. The Parents Television Council criticized the deal because “In order to watch original episodes of the most iconic children’s program in television history, parents are now forced to fork over about $180 per year and subscribe to the most sexually explicit, most graphically violent television network in America.”
Some argue that Sesame Street is only doing what it has to do in order to survive. They point out that the show will still be available on PBS for free, although the episodes shown on the public broadcaster will be delayed by nine months. And many note that children — especially young ones — aren’t typically that concerned with the timeliness of the shows they watch, so there probably aren’t going to be howls of outrage from Sesame Street fans that someone else is getting early access.
That time delay still rankles for many, however, because it means that a program which was specifically designed to help educate poor children will be unavailable to those children, until after it has already been watched by children of more wealthy families who can afford HBO subscriptions. “I get why Sesame Street did the HBO deal, but it makes me sad we’re privatizing a national treasure originally aimed at educating poor kids,” comedian Brian Gaar said on Twitter.
From HBO’s perspective, nabbing Sesame Street is a key part of the broadcaster’s plan to appeal to younger viewers. The competition for streaming-video audiences has been heating up, as services like Hulu and Netflix continue to beef up their offerings, and both have made inroads into the child market (Hulu has a deal with Nickelodeon and Netflix owns shows like “Reading Rainbow”). Although Sesame Street is far from the hot new thing, it has a fairly dependable audience.
All of this jockeying for power is just part of a much broader transformation of the TV universe, with streaming services like Netflix becoming far more dominant as the traditional cable bundle collapses, and new providers taking over the from traditional giants.
Where and how public media fits into this new landscape isn’t exactly clear. Although PBS was sanguine about the Sesame Street deal, the loss of such a landmark show has to hit hard, especially for an entity that like many public broadcasters is struggling to stay afloat. National Public Radio faces similar challenges: Some of its popular shows are losing listeners, and for a variety of reasons it has yet to capitalize on the growing interest in podcasts.
For Sesame Street in particular, the shift toward streaming has meant a sharp decline in DVD sales, one of the key sources of revenue for the program (which only got about 10% of its funding from PBS). In 2014, Sesame Workshop lost $11 million, and its operating revenues were down by close to 14%. That trend meant it essentially had no choice but to do the deal with HBO, according to Sesame Workshop CEO Jeff Dunn:
In some ways, public media entities like NPR and PBS seem to fit perfectly with the on-demand market, where users and fans support the things they want to, rather than buying cable bundles. In fact, the public-media model is very similar to the idea of “crowdfunding” popularized by startups like Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
With so many competing media sources, however, there’s a chance that public broadcasters could get lost amid the noise, and/or have their flagship programs taken away by more well-funded entities like HBO as subscription streams take over from mainstream TV programming. That seems to be what’s at the heart of much of the Sesame Street backlash. And the ultimate solution to that problem is far from obvious.