'Romney Was Right: Big Bird Heads to HBO'

By Michael Getler

Aug. 19, 2015

The headline on this column was lifted from a posting on a conservative website that followed the big news last week that, for the next five years, all the new episodes of the iconic children’s program Sesame Street—and all its beloved characters—will appear first behind the paywall of cable giant HBO. Nine months after they debut on HBO, they will be available for free on PBS, which has been home-free-home to Sesame Street since its debut in late 1969.

The headline quoted above recalled the quick, but quickly damaging, quip by then Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in his 2012 campaign debate with President Obama. The debate moderator was PBS’s Jim Lehrer. As I wrote at the time, “Romney started it all by volunteering in the debate that, as one example of what he would do to cut the deficit, he was ‘going to stop the subsidy to PBS . . . I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you, too’ he said to Lehrer. But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

Actually, Romney was not right. PBS continues to have strong public support and some government funding. But the image of Big Bird, so identified with PBS and Sesame Street, flying off to a premium cable channel in the Time Warner orbit to show off his newest stuff first, gives the headline some credibility.

The news about the deal has generated a great deal of coverage—scores of newspaper, magazine and online stories and columns, and reports by all the television and radio networks. The world of children’s programming, especially, has exploded in recent years, but Sesame Street holds a very special place for millions of youngsters and their parents. So the intense interest, coverage and analysis is understandable.

PBS Doesn’t Say Much about the Deal

PBS, as an organization, has said rather little, and what it did say officially was to stress the big reach of existing PBS programming for children and the scope of its PBS KIDS service of more than a dozen other series focusing on “the needs of today’s children and on…fundamental academic areas.” And they pointed out that the new partnership between Sesame Workshop and HBO “does not change the fundamental role PBS and stations play in the lives of families” and that “Sesame Street will continue to air on PBS stations as part of the PBS KIDS service.”

It was also explained in response to earlier stories that there will be no actual interruption of Sesame Street on PBS stations, but the show will move from an hour to a 30-minute format on weekdays and that those, according to the Times report, will feature “a selection of episodes from the last several seasons edited in new ways.”

But there was nothing official that sought to capture and deal with the shock, surprise and emotions that so many people felt about this thoroughly contemporary transfer—based on more money and resources than public broadcasting can provide, longer term budgetary security, new forms of competition in today’s disruptive technological landscape, and rapidly expanding ways in which children absorb programs.

The closest PBS came to reflecting the actual feelings of what must be very large numbers of parents took place last Friday during a segment of the PBS NewsHour devoted to the “big changes at Sesame Street.” It is also, in my view, the most helpful thing that has aired on PBS so far in seeking to grapple with all the factors at work on producers and dedicated viewers.

The segment host was co-anchor Judy Woodruff and the guest was Gary Knell, who was CEO of the non-profit Sesame Workshop from 2000-2011, then head of NPR and now president of the National Geographic Society. Knell did what I thought was a very good job of laying out the competitive, technological and financial reality of today's environment and how viewers, especially children, receive programming these days. In my view, it would have been good to have another guest as well who might have delved more into the social and emotional impact and decades-long connections to this very special series.

Gut Questions

But that role, it seemed to me, was filled admirably by Woodruff with a lot of the gut reaction questions of the kind that faithful viewers would have. You can watch the interview online, but here, in order, are her questions to Knell:

“So, tell us, what was behind this? Now that we have a day to digest the news, what do we attribute this to? What were the forces at work?

“But why HBO? We think of this as a — frankly, a channel that appeals to adults. It’s a premium pay cable thing. It’s something people are going to have to pay for. Why — couldn’t it work at PBS?

“But what about implications, though, Gary, now for children’s programming? The premise of ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Sesame Street’ Workshop was to bring quality educational programming to all kids, kids who were underserved, whose parents might not have been able to expose them to other things. What about that original mission?

“But what about those kids who may not have access to pay — who don’t have access to pay cable? Yes, they will be able to see it nine months later. But it’s almost as if — are you creating two different classes of programming for children?

“And I know you’re not at the Workshop anymore. You left there in 2011. But do you think we’re going to see more changes like this in children’s programming?

“And finally, what about for public broadcasting, for our home, PBS? How big a loss is this? What are the consequences?”

Some Letters

I actually received only a handful of letters on the big switch to HBO, which surprised me. I thought it would have generated a lot more mail. The ones I did receive were pretty strong. Here are two of them:

I watched PBS News last night and by the end of the conversation about Sesame Street, with all its obfuscation, lack of logic, and circular arguments, I could only conclude that money and greed are at the bottom of the decision to move it to HBO. What a shame. I can't get HBO. I know many others who can't get it either. None of us has a lot of money and it's not been worth my while to spend it for things like HBO.

Virginia Martin, St. Paul, MN

~ ~ ~

Just watched your PBS News Hour discussion of Sesame Street's move to HBO. You have outdone yourself. Sesame Street has done a powder for more money, and PBS will be the loser. Dress it up any way you want, it's still a pig with lipstick. Remember whom you serve: people with an antenna, a TV and kids who can't afford HBO.

Lawrence Smith, Berkeley, CA

No Dog in This Fight

I don’t have any considered ombudsman’s assessment on this issue. It is really a business decision by Sesame Street and HBO which, it is argued by some, could have a very big pay-off for both in terms of keeping Sesame Street going and able to produce even more fresh shows than it does now, and helping HBO break into a big children’s market and leaven its offering of distinctly adult entertainment. And it is fair to point out, as others have, that young kids who watch PBS probably won’t know or care that something appeared nine months earlier on pay-TV.

Still, it seems to me there is something depressing about all this, an inability in the current environment to keep programs such as this as an honored product of public broadcasting at its best, rather than to have it now associated with pay walls and one more two-tiered system of public separation.

There are many articles on the pros and cons of the deal by Variety, the Huffington PostForbes and CNN Money, for example, in addition to Knell’s points on the NewsHour.

Posted on Aug. 19, 2015 at 11:20 a.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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