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Sunday, August 16, 2015

Stress on Sesame Street

Why are so many people in an uproar over the deal between HBO and Sesame Workshop? Ok, Sesame Street is an American institution, and people distrust big corporate media like Time Warner. That much, I get.

But the finances of Sesame Workshop — which was called Children's Television Workshop before 2000 — have been deteriorating for a long time. As far as I can tell, the big difference between now and ten years ago is that sales of merchandise bearing the Sesame Street brand or its characters have fallen sharply. That is, parents of young children these days are not buying Sesame Street clothes and toys (see 140 examples of merchandise). Sesame Workshop derived licensing income from those sales, and the money has dried up. I suppose one could try to blame Sesame Workshop for the reduction in merchandising, but that's unfair. Consumers simply changed their buying patterns and preferences. And according to the Wikipedia article, Sesame Workshop did try to broaden its reach with theme parks, video games, website resources, and ebooks. None of those initiatives was a smash success, but in retrospect they may have been trying to throw beach balls into the wind.

Variety has a good analysis. Having already cut way back on the range of shows it produces, Sesame Workshop was forced to do something revolutionary. The terms of the deal with HBO are not onerous; PBS will still get access to new episodes nine months after they are first shown on HBO. Given that most episodes of Sesame Street shown on PBS stations are years-old reruns already, will anyone notice? The length of new episodes will be reduced from 60 minutes to 30, but that's partly a financial decision and partly a reflection that most children don't sit in front of television screens for hours on end as they did forty years ago.

No, to me the tragedy of Sesame Street is the retirement of Sonia Manzano. When my children and I were watching the program, she made it more interesting for me. Or, as Jimmy Carter said in his Playboy interview…