Sesame Street Gets Gentrified

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Sesame Street is now more like a toll road. MelodyKWolff

HBO buys neighbourhood

By Julia Peterson

Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street? Well, starting next year, if you’re living in the United States it’ll cost you $15 USD a month ($20 CAD) to get there.

Sesame Street, which has famously broadcast for free on PBS for over 40 years, has been bought by HBO. The show will be moving to HBO’s new streaming service, HBO Max, for its 51st season. Moving forward, American families will have to subscribe to HBO Max to get new episodes of the classic children’s program. Warner Media, HBO’s parent company, has stated that the episodes will air for free on PBS “at some point,” but that new Sesame Street content will be broadcast exclusively on the streaming service.

Tim Winter, the president of the Parents Television Council in the United States, has expressed concern about the effect this move would have on children and families.

“Kids are getting squeezed in the middle,” he said. “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.”

According to University of Regina Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education, Christine Massing, this move is directly antithetical to the original and defining purpose of the show.

“Instituting a paywall will negatively impact many families, but particularly Sesame Street’s original target audience – families who are unable to afford or access early childhood education programs,” she said.

In the words of journalist and Sesame Street historian Michael Davis, the show began as an attempt to “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them.” The show’s creators wanted to use their platform to help children, particularly children from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds, learn and be prepared for school.

“While Sesame Street is not a substitute for a high-quality early childhood education program, it has been found to operate as a teaching tool which can supplement the existing resources held within the family and community,” said Massing.

And, even though the new Sesame Street episodes will air on PBS at some point, airing them on a premium cable network significantly earlier means that the children that the show was initially designed to serve – poor children, who have fewer early-childhood educational opportunities than their peers – will only get to see the episodes well after wealthy children have been enjoying and benefitting from them for months.

Sesame Street was the first children’s television show ever to use educational goals and a curriculum to shape the content of its episodes, and its impact has been intensively studied over the years. While adults might have fuzzy memories of growing up with songs about the letter C (“is for cookie, that’s good enough for me”) or counting to four – such as Feist’s parody of her own hit song “1234” – all these sketches tie into larger goals such as learning about symbolic representation, building cognitive processes, and understanding physical and social environments.

“Watching the show as a preschooler has been found to lead to positive educational outcomes as measured by math, reading, and vocabulary scores,” said Massing. “Research also suggests that these advantages stay with children throughout their school years, not only in terms of their grades but also their attitudes toward learning. Children don’t just learn academic skills such as literacy and numeracy, but also how to navigate their world – to stay healthy and safe, negotiate relationships with others, respect diversity, and cope with loss, trauma, or other difficult circumstances.”

Sesame Street has a long-standing tradition of speaking to topical social issues in a kid-friendly way. The show began with a racially integrated cast, which initially led the state commission in Mississippi to initially decline to air the show because they felt that a “highly integrated cast of children [was something] Mississippi was not yet ready for.”

The puppet character Mr. Snuffleupagus, who for years had had a running gag of being friends with Big Bird but disappearing whenever other cast members were around, was introduced to the Sesame Street adults in 1985 as a specific response to a series of interviews about child sexual abuse that had aired on 60 minutes – the producers wanted to show children that adults would believe what they had to say. In recent years, the show has introduced Julia, an autistic muppet, and Karli, a Muppet in foster care.

Jeffrey D. Dun, the chief executive of Sesame Workshop, does not believe that the paywall on new episodes will negatively impact the show’s ability to deliver on its mission.

“No other media company believes that disadvantaged kids deserve the same shot as middle-class kids, and that remains important to us,” he said.

In Canada, Corus Entertainment’s Nelvana Enterprises owns the broadcasting and licensing rights to Sesame Street. It broadcasts the show on Treehouse channel, which can be found on Amazon Prime Video, Bell TV, Rogers, and other similar networks.

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