‘T’ Is For The Troubling Changes On ‘Sesame Street’

There goes the neighborhood.
Cara Lisa Berg Powers
June 11, 2016
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As the parent of a toddler, there are multiple, competing opinions about basically every decision I make in regards to my almost three-year-old’s life. One thing that you get pretty universal criticism about, though, is putting an electronic device into the hands of a tiny person.

Rest assured, my daughter has never tried to swipe on a magazine or book, she loves to color with real crayons, and she even plays with blocks. Still, we’re in the car two hours a day and I would lose my mind if she didn’t also have a tablet. One of her favorite apps is a Sesame Street one called “The Big Moving Adventure”—it’s interactive, responsive, and educational. And recently, when I was turning it on for her, I noticed a pop-up ad for something called “Sesame Studios.”

Upon my investigating, I discovered that Sesame Studios is a new YouTube channel dedicated to releasing free, short-form Sesame Street content designed specifically for online viewing. Developing this new digital content was part of the deal inked last fall between Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit group behind the children’s show, and HBO, the premium cable network best known for content that is far grislier, shall we say, than Oscar the Grouch. After 45 years on the public broadcaster PBS, Big Bird and company kicked off season 46 in January from their new—and notably more upscale—digs at HBO, with the agreement that PBS would be able to air the new episodes nine months after they went live.

The move, driven by funding struggles in the digital age, has been cheered by Sesame Workshop and HBO executives alike. Sesame Workshop COO Steve Youngwood has said, “Sesame Studios represents another new frontier for us; one where we can bring our educational expertise to an emerging platform for our audiences.”

However, it’s at this dawn of Sesame Street’s new day that we should be taking stock of the show’s co-creator Joan Ganz Cooney’s famous words: “It’s not whether kids are learning from television, but what they are learning.” In our world of ubiquitous screens and unending content, this axiom is perhaps more pertinent than ever.

And unfortunately, the reality is that this new deal degrades the critical original mission of Sesame Street. Moreover, the premium cable network’s involvement in funding the pivotal children’s show signals some disturbing truths about the direction of our society.

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Many think pieces have questioned whether the HBO deal might impact the access that low-income youth will have to Sesame Street. Ben Popper at The Verge joked, “I don’t have broadcast TV, but it was three easy clicks on my Apple TV to start watching it on HBO Go on Sunday. All you need to access quality children’s programming is a subscription to the most expensive streaming television network and a device from the wealthiest company in the world.”

“What’s the big deal?” Jessica Goldstein at Think Progress echoes. “Is this two-tier system that gives middle- and upper-class children new episodes nine months before making them available to families without HBO a betrayal of Sesame Street’s mission to serve the underserved?”

So what of this original mission? According to a 1969 article in The Atlantic, “In its program proposal, the Workshop describes as its objective the development of a television series that will ‘promote the intellectual and cultural growth of preschoolers, particularly disadvantaged preschoolers.’”

And that’s exactly what it did.

I have a doctorate in education. My husband has a Master’s from the London School. We own our home, have four televisions in a house with three people, and maintain access to every type of media you can think of.

Sesame Street made that possible.

That seems like a bold claim, but it’s backed by research . . . and my own experience. For two kids (my husband and me) from working-class, urban backgrounds, Sesame Street provided a valuable supplement to working parents, limited access to early childhood education, and a television landscape that told us that our communities were not normal.

Almost 50 years in, through its unique commitment to research and early childhood development, Sesame Street is still the gold standard in kids’ programming. And with good reason. According to Ed Week, “Early large-scale studies by the Educational Testing Service in the 1970s found children ages three to five who watched the show over 26 weeks showed significant improvements in the skills covered by the show, including alphabet and number recognition, body parts, and shapes.”

In fact, research shows that kids can learn as much from the show as from preschool. According to this recent study from Wellesley College and University of Maryland, “Sesame Street is one of the largest and most affordable early childhood interventions ever to take place.” Additionally, the study found that “Boys and black, non-Hispanic children experienced the biggest improvements in school performance. Effects are largest for children living in economically disadvantaged areas.”

These children, however, are no longer the target audience for Sesame Street. According to a piece in the International Business Times, many young families—especially low-income ones—are getting priced out of cable TV. So they aren’t accessing the free Sesame Street on PBS and now, for families that were potentially paying $7.99 per month to get all of their grown-up primetime TV through Hulu and have access to nearly 150 episodes of Sesame Street, they have to pony up $14.99 a month for HBO Now—and maybe have to drop Hulu (and possibly even their access to anything but HBO programming) just to maintain access to Sesame Street. The only other option for these families is to separately pay $3.99 for a Sesame Street monthly pass on YouTube to access the Sesame Street archives there—which don’t include new episodes.

As a result of this HBO deal, it’s children like my daughter who are now the primary audience for the show. And this concerns me; my daughter loves Sesame Street, but Sesame Street was not originally created for my daughter. She can certainly benefit from it, but in light of the resources available to her, she doesn’t need it.

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So what else has changed?

As The Guardian put it, “New money has ruined Sesame Street.”

“Now, as the camera pans over Big Bird’s new-look neighborhood, and in keeping with the times, those houses seem to have been remodeled by developers. It doesn’t look rich, per se, but it does look cute and bijou, like renditions of London that crop up in Hollywood films.”

Additionally, a quick scan of the first few episodes show us that Elmo has a spruced-up new apartment, Oscar has recycling bins, and the recently retired Maria (played for 44 years by Sonia Manzano) has been replaced by younger (and lighter-skinned) Latina tinkerer, Nina (played by Cuban-American actress Suki Lopez).

This may all seem easy to gloss over, but the look and feel of Sesame Street matters. As the neighborhoods we city kids grew up in become harder and harder to stay in, and bodegas get replaced with artisanal mayonnaise shops, it’s sad to think that Sesame Street is being gentrified, too. What’s worse, as with actual gentrification, the awnings (and complexions of characters) aren’t the only things that are changing.

According to Variety, Abby’s Flying Fairy School and Super Grover are no more, and the new Sesame Street will also be scaling back on celebrity guest appearances and adult satires like Cookie Monster’s “The Hungry Games.” The rationale for many of these changes seems to come not from educational research, but from market research. Per Variety: “The changes weren’t made in response to the move to HBO, but came about as producers focused on what its main viewers really wanted in an extremely fierce market for their attention.” Such a shift in focus is frustrating for a show that used to be a pioneer.

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Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the new Sesame-scape is the role private corporations are now playing in the show. The paywalls as a result of the HBO deal are an attempt to nickel and dime something we should be paying for communally.

The new Sesame Studios is underwritten by United Healthcare, as is the programming in general (not to mention Party City and Beaches resorts). To hear those in the business tell it, Sesame Street can’t make its budgets because it can’t sell DVDs anymore. But the fact is that less than 10% of what it previously cost to make Sesame Street came from PBS member stations. So the real problem is that—like schools, transportation, prisons, and a laundry list of other things we used to believe should be our collective responsibility—Sesame Street has become another neo-liberal compromise. According to Sesame Workshop CEO Jeffrey D. Dunn, “Our new partnership with HBO represents a true winning public-private partnership model.”

But here’s the scariest part—that 10% of funding that Sesame Street got from PBS member stations? Part of the HBO deal was that PBS stations now get the show for free. So where exactly is the public in this “public/private” partnership? Apparently getting sub-par free content on YouTube via the glossy, overproduced Sesame Studios.

This is all part of the cultural underpinning erroneously holding that you cannot find value in places plagued with poverty—that people from communities like the one I grew up need wealthy elites to fix their lives. This pervades everything from our nonprofit industrial complex (which I am certainly part of) to our entertainment. Having been a poor person for a good chunk of my life, I can tell you that a great deal of poor people helped me along my way. Not to mention that we’d all likely do a much better job solving problems of poverty with more impacted parties at the table.

I am not questioning the production team at Sesame Street or its commitment to education or track record in educational programming. Brown Johnson, the Creative Director, is responsible for some of my daughter’s favorite shows (like Dora the Explorer, Yo Gabba Gabba, and Blue’s Clues), which she’s learned a great deal from. Dr. Rosemarie Truglio is responsible for curriculum and content, and her credentials in early childhood development and education are solid.

But organizationally, what is the focus of the new Sesame Street initiative? And how can it serve diverse populations of children given its homogeny? of The leadership page of Sesame Workshop is abysmally white and largely male. That Truglio, the one person with a solid educational background is not even considered part of senior leadership is concerning, if not surprising. 

Kids don’t just learn vocab, colors, and letters from Sesame Street. They learn that the people who look like them are doctors, lawyers, and store owners. They learn that community and cooperation are powerful. They learn that neighborhoods, and streets that look like theirs, can be vibrant, beautiful places of learning where people from different backgrounds, experiences, and lifestyles can learn from one another and grow together. Just because rich kids like the toy that was made for the poor kids doesn’t mean the poor kids shouldn’t be able to have it anymore. And it definitely shouldn’t be changed to better meet the needs of the rich kids.

For the kids I work with, the kid I was, I want Nina Simone singing “Young, Gifted and Black,” I want segments that show that some kids’ parents are in prison and they love them anyway, I want brick and cement with trees breaking through.

Take down the lights, knock down the studio walls, and let’s take it back to the street.

Cara Lisa Berg Powers is Executive Director of Press Pass TV, an organization dedicated to using media arts and culture to solve community challenges and empower youth. She is Co-Chair of the NARAL Massachusetts Political Committee and Treasurer of Emerge Massachusetts, an organization that trains Democratic women to run for office and win. To keep sane, she plays Roller Derby as Surely Chis'l in her hometown of Worcester where she lives with her husband and daughter.

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June 19, 2016