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Essay: Sesame Street Makes a Tragic Move to HBO

Selena N. B. H.
If you want to catch new episodes of "Sesame Street" you will have to purchase HBO.


The news broke last week that the children’s TV show, Sesame Street, a staple of PBS for 46 years, will soon air first-run shows on HBO.  It’s a development that some welcome, but concerns many others, including Lake Effect essayist Joanne Weintraub.

You know the song, right? “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?”

Well, starting this fall, the best and shortest route to new episodes of “Sesame Street” will be to pay about $180 a year so your kids can watch them on HBO.  No, not PBS--premium cable. And, as you know, “premium” is another way of saying “expensive.”

Maybe you’ve heard the news: The beloved and irreplaceable Sesame Workshop is running out of money.  So, to keep Big Bird and Cookie Monster on the air, they’ve sold them to HBO.

Won’t your kids still be able to watch this wise, funny, charming and effortlessly educational show for free on public TV this fall? Well, yes—but there is a small catch. “Sesame Street” will now operate on a two-tiered system.  If you pay for HBO, your children get new episodes. If you can’t afford to or just don’t want to, your kids will watch reruns on PBS until they air the new episodes nine months later.

The grownups who run “Sesame Street” have been quick to point out that, after all, it’s not as if their show is leaving PBS. It’s just taking, you know, a little detour.

One of them told the New York Times the other day. “Timing doesn’t matter to kids, the more they watch (old episodes), the more they like (them).”

OK, sure, there’s some truth to that. But it’s not the whole truth.

You know how some of your friends want to talk about “Game of Thrones,” but you don’t get HBO and can’t be bothered with Netflix? Or they’re all excited about “True Blood,” or "Boardwalk Empire" or “Veep,” or any of HBO’s other trendy and sometimes actually wonderful adult shows?

Now imagine that you’re 4 years old. You’re at preschool with your best friend, Isabella. Isabella has just seen the cutest, funniest, best-ever “Sesame Street” with Kermit and Miss Piggy and maybe  even Tina Fey, who’s a big fan of the show and has appeared on it before.

Now Isabella’s family has HBO, so she saw that best-ever episode yesterday. But your family doesn’t have HBO, so you saw another episode. A FREE, episode. An OLD episode.

Are you depressed yet? I am.

But, look: This sorry state of affairs isn’t “Sesame Street’s” fault, and it’s not HBO’s fault. Even a dimwit like Oscar the Grouch could probably figure out whose fault it is: It’s OUR fault. You, and me, and the rest of the grownups who’ve let PBS go underfunded for years .

Especially for the last 45 years, when “Sesame Street” has been educating generation after generation of American children, doing it really well, and doing it for free.

You get the public TV you pay for. And, as a nation, we just keep on failing  to pay for public TV. We don’t seem to want to pay for it with our tax dollars, and precious few of us pay for it with donations.

That makes us pretty unusual, by the way. Citizens of many other nations pay a hefty TV tax to support public broadcasting. Know why they keep doing it? Because they value shows like “Sesame Street,” and they want kids—even kids whose families can’t or don’t want to bring premium cable into their homes—to be able to watch them for free.

Yes, I know. This is beginning to sound like a pledge drive. Weird, right? And I don’t even work for public radio, let alone public TV.

So I won’t try to guilt-trip you into supporting Big Bird with your donations. I won’t even suggest that you vote for politicians who aren’t afraid to support Big Bird with—yes, I'm going to say it—tax dollars.

I’ll just remind you that you and your kids can visit the big yellow guy on HBO this fall. Because that’s how we proud, free-market Americans like it, I guess.