Landscape of Children's TV Shifted Beneath 'Sesame Street'
'Sesame Street'-HBO Deal Reflects World of More Channels, Platforms
The deal that is sending "Sesame Street" to a new TV neighborhood—the premium channels and services of HBO—is emblematic of a fast-shifting landscape for children's television programming, experts say.
Preschoolers and their parents have vastly larger volumes of programming available to them, on more channels, than they did when "Sesame Street" debuted in 1969, and they are increasingly watching shows not just on living room TVs, but also on platforms such as tablet computers and mobile phones.
"What's clear is that children are moving to access more and more entertainment and educational shows not on television but on digital devices," said Ellen A. Wartella, a professor and the director of the Center on Media and Human Development at Northwestern University's School of Communication.
That was a widely accepted motivation for the five-year partnership announced this month between Sesame Workshop, the New York City-based creator of "Sesame Street," and HBO, which will give the premium cable network exclusive access to new episodes for nine months, after which they will appear on their longtime home, PBS.
HBO is pumping an undisclosed amount of money into Sesame Workshop (formerly the Children's Television Workshop) in a deal that also includes a new spinoff series involving "Sesame Street" Muppets. The deal gives HBO highly acclaimed programming for its new streaming video services at a time when others in that field, such as Netflix and Amazon, are ramping up both original children's shows and libraries of older programs.
Sesame Workshop, which was experiencing budget pressures because of declining product sales, gets money to increase production of "Sesame Street" from 18 to 35 episodes a year.
1966: “Sesame Street” founders Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett study the feasibility of a children’s educational television show for the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
1969: “Sesame Street” debuts on the National Educational Television network, the forerunner of PBS. James Earl Jones is the first celebrity guest.
1972: “Sesame Street” debuts internationally with “Vila Sésamo” in Brazil and “Plaza Sésamo” in Mexico.
1979: Nickelodeon launches, initially as a noncommercial cable channel featuring children’s programming. The channel would begin accepting advertising in the mid-1980s.
1983: Will Lee, the actor who played the original character of Mr. Hooper, the shopkeeper on “Sesame Street,” dies. The show addresses his death in an award-winning episode.
1999: Nickelodeon launches Noggin, its channel for educational programming. It is eventually targeted at preschoolers, and is rebranded as Nick Jr. in 2009. Noggin becomes the name for a mobile app featuring older Nickelodeon children’s shows.
2004: PBS teams with Sesame Workshop, Comcast, and other partners to form a cable channel and on-demand service featuring preschool programming called PBS Kids Sprout. When Comcast acquires NBC and its parent company, the channel is renamed Sprout.
2007: Netflix introduces streaming of shows online, which would grow to include libraries of classic children’s shows and original programming.
2012: Disney Jr., an offshoot of the commercial free Disney Channel but geared to preschoolers, is launched.
2015: Sesame Workshop and HBO announce a five-year partnership in which an expanded lineup of new “Sesame Street” episodes will appear on the premium cable channel before being provided for free to PBS after nine months.
PBS will get its eventual access to the new episodes for free, but that didn't seem to leave the non-commercial network overflowing with enthusiasm for the deal.
"Even as media is moving toward this tiered system of paid content versus other stuff, our role is to be available for free to all, and we will remain that," Anne Bentley, PBS's vice president of corporate communications, said in an interview. "This doesn't change the fundamental role that PBS plays in the lives of families."
While giving Internet denizens the chance to have fun with ideas for blending "Sesame Street" characters with HBO's adult fare, such as "The Sopranos" and "Game of Thrones," the deal drew criticism from several quarters.
The Parents Television Council called on HBO to unlock its subscription window when "Sesame Street" episodes air. Jamie Poniewozik, Time magazine's TV critic, wrote that he understood the basis for the deal, but "it feels gross."
"Everyone still gets to visit Big Bird," he said. "Some people just have to use the poor door."
No Interruption of 'The Street'
Sesame Workshop seemed to gird for such criticisms of the deal by including in its press release an approving statement from the co-founder of "Sesame Street," Joan Ganz Cooney.
"I've long admired the creative work of HBO and can't think of a better partner to continue the quality of 'Sesame Street' programming," Cooney said in her statement, which went on to note changes in the way children are consuming video and the economics of children's television production.
"In order to fund our nonprofit mission with a sustainable business model, Sesame Workshop must recognize these changes and adapt to the times," she said.
Gary E. Knell, a former CEO of Sesame Workshop, said he understands the emotion behind the concern about the show moving to a premium channel, "but I don't think it holds up."
"There will not be a day that goes by that 'Sesame Street' will not be on PBS," said Knell, who left Sesame Workshop in 2011 to lead National Public Radio for two years before becoming the head of the National Geographic Society in Washington.
He noted that the typical 4-year-old viewer of "Sesame Street" is not going to realize that an episode on PBS may have appeared months earlier on HBO. And he doubts that Sesame Workshop would allow the cable channel to influence the content of the show.
"I know these people," he said. "They are not going to be producing a different show because the first window is on HBO."
It's not just cable channels such as Disney Channel's Disney Jr., Nickelodeon's Nick Jr., and Sprout that offer hours of programming for younger children each day, some of it educational. Streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime have built up libraries of older shows from a variety of sources, which they offer as part of their monthly all-you-can-stream plans, and they are starting to produce their own shows.
Netflix alone unveiled plans for five new children's shows earlier this year.
"You can't roll back to 50 years ago and pretend it's the same environment," Knell said. "Home video sales have disappeared completely, and toys and games have been replaced by iPads and other electronic technologies."
That observation is confirmed by the work of Wartella and others. A study last year by her center at Northwestern found that 25 percent of children from birth to age 8 used an iPad or similar touch device regularly. (The survey showed that 89 percent watched television and 43 percent used traditional computers.)
"Just as adults are moving to mobile devices, so are kids," Wartella said. The veteran researcher of children's media is a board member of Sesame Workshop, and she declined to discuss the HBO deal.
"Sesame Street" has become the gold standard of children's programming over the years. There have been some complaints, such as the view of the late communications professor Neil Postman, that the show taught children to love television more than learning, and to expect to be entertained at school.
But research has consistently backed up the show.
"Sesame Street" was not just a pioneer in children's television, but in research on learning and children's connection to media. More than 1,000 studies in the United States and internationally, including large-scale longitudinal experiments, have tested everything from the show's effects on children's school readiness and content understanding to their self-esteem, social growth, and compassion.
The show's creators had in part been inspired by young children riveted by as little as a TV test pattern, and they formally integrated the content and production of the show with ongoing research on how it was affecting children and what they learned from it. Sesame Workshop regularly experiments with different versions of the same segment to evaluate its effectiveness in teaching the content.
Early large-scale studies by the Educational Testing Service in the 1970s found children ages 3 to 5 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.
Moreover, follow-up studies found teachers later rated children who had watched "Sesame Street" as better prepared for school than a control group. Parent engagement in watching the shows with their children explained some but not all of the significant effects. For all of those studies, the effects remained significant for students of different genders, regions of the country, native language, and income levels. Low-income children showed stronger growth.
And for all the research, one shouldn't forget that "Sesame Street" is also just a good sketch comedy show that entertains parents as well. The show had beaten Web meme-sters to the punch with its own parodies of popular HBO shows, such as "True Mud," "Birdwalk Empire," and "Game of Chairs."
One fact little noticed in the discussion about the Sesame Workshop-HBO deal is that just days before, PBS had dropped the long-running hourlong version of "Sesame Street" from its schedule. Beginning with its new PBS season on Nov. 16, public TV stations will air only a half-hour version. The show is continuing uninterrupted on PBS, even though HBO's version may begin airing as soon as the end of the year.
Bentley, the PBS communications chief, said member stations tested a half-hour version of the show last year and liked it.
Lesli Rotenberg, the general manager of children's media for PBS, said in an interview that "Sesame Street" is no longer the top-rated show among 2- to 5-year-olds. In fact, it was in 6th place in this past season's average behind "Curious George," "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood," "Wild Kratts," "Dinosaur Train," and "Peg + Cat," according to the Nielsen Co.
Rotenberg notes that PBS has a board of advisers helping to determine which skills of children need to be addressed through educational shows. Thus, the animated "Peg + Cat" helps preschoolers learn foundational math concepts, not only in the TV show but also with interactive online activities. Coming this season are new series "Nature Cat," which encourages children to get outside and explore nature, and an astronomy and earth science show called "Ready Jet Go!"
Rotenberg also said that PBS is the No. 1 provider of digital streaming of children's programming. She gave statistics from Web analytics firm comScore showing PBS ahead of Disney, Nickelodeon, and other providers.
Deb Sanchez, the senior vice president of educational and children's content at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the federally funded entity that provides grants to public TV and radio stations and other projects, said that one reason "Sesame Street" is a respected and sought-after property is because public television "has set such high standards for quality."
"Yes, we are all operating in the same media space," she said, in reference to commercial, premium, and public media providers. "But we do have different missions and different objectives."
Vol. 35, Issue 02, Pages 1, 14Published in Print: August 26, 2015, as Terrain Shifts for Children's TV Programming