Naeemah Clark is an associate professor of communications at Elon University where she researches economic, programming and diversity issues related to the media and entertainment industries.
In this piece, she discusses the new deal between Time-Warner Inc.-owned HBO and “Sesame Street.” The next five seasons of the beloved educational children’s show will be rolled out on HBO first and will appear on PBS nine months later. PBS has been home to “Sesame Street” for 45 years.
By Naeemah Clark
We were late to the first day of kindergarten. Not only had my mother gotten the time wrong, but also the date. When I joined my fellow classmates an hour and two days after the start of the school year, Mrs. Zimmerman was going through the day’s lesson. The students were repeating the names of U.S. presidents with long, curly white hair as they looked at a border tacked over the chalkboard.
I may not have understood the fashions of the founding fathers, but I could do what many of the children in my class could not. I could read all by myself and could write my letters and numbers. I was kindergarten ready because my first three teachers were in my home: mom, dad, television.
Mom taught me how to color inside of the lines and the phonetics of each letter of the alphabet (aah, aah, buh, buh. . . ). And I remember Dad putting his beefy fingers into the child-sized holes of my red scissors to demonstrate proper cutting technique even though he was a lefty and the handle was righty.
Also a reliable educator in the house was our 27-inch Sylvania television that sat on the shag carpet in our rec room. After breakfast, I’d walk downstairs, pull the button on the top of the console, and turn the dial to Channel 13. That’s where “Sesame Street” was. Every single sunny day. Songs taught letters and numbers and Muppets taught life lessons such as sharing and cooperation.
The entertaining, edifying program began airing in 1969 after documentary film producer Joan Ganz Cooney created the Children’s Television Workshop to make quality television for children. “Sesame Street” was intended to close the gap between kids whose parents worked to prepare them for school and those who did not or could not. Often these divisions were along racial and economic lines.
Setting the program on an inner city street with rich racial (and species) diversity invited children from different backgrounds to engage with the lessons and the community.
And that community captured the American heart in a gentle but honest child-centered way. In 1983, when Big Bird learned of the death of his friend Mr. Hooper (played by Will Lee), children were taught how to mourn the passing of a loved one. In 2001, when a hurricane hit the street, stories of rebuilding illustrated that hope comes after loss. And the joyful and exceptionally pink Abby Cadabby has divorced parents.
Soon, there will be a new lesson that “Sesame Street” will teach its young audience. It’s called the “knowledge gap.” Scholars Philip J. Tichenor, George A. Donohue, and Clarice N. Olien determined that people with higher socioeconomic status have greater access to media information than those of a lower socioeconomic class. Therefore, those with more money gain valuable information faster, increasing the gap between the economic classes.
This fall “Sesame Street” will begin its partnership with premium cable network HBO. In this deal, HBO will have exclusive rights to first run episodes of “Sesame Street,” with the newer episodes airing nine months later on PBS — where it always used to be.
While the partnership brings a much-needed infusion of cash to the financially hampered children’s television mainstay, the embargo signals that the financial haves are the teachers’ pets.
The lag of nine months, the length of a typical school year, means that children whose parents don’t pay for HBO will not have access to the same pre-school and pro-social preparation that their tiny contemporaries have.
Undoubtedly, those with HBO will benefit from the deal. The cable network, which costs between $10 and $16 on top of the basic cable bill, will offer subscribers 35 30-minute episodes; PBS aired 18 hour-long episodes for most of its 45 years. The truncated programs will make for more desirable viewing on HBO Go, the network’s online streaming service costing $15 a month.
In a media world where kids are turning to handheld devices and not 27-inch Sylvania screens, the relationship between HBO and “Sesame Street” is a sign of the future.
Perhaps it’s naïve to hope that HBO would show some benevolence and equal the playing field by shortening—or eliminating—the delay that comes with its exclusive rights to Oscar the Grouch. However, the social capital it could gain by demonstrating its concern for the education of all children would be significant.
Still, in the darkest parts of my mind, I do wonder if losing the first run of “Sesame Street” is akin to the Children’s Television Workshop sending America to the corner for not giving money to public television. The control was, after all, in our hands, but we didn’t do our part.
Parents prepare their kids for school by filling shopping carts with pens and protractors, but most don’t pledge to their public television stations. My parents placed a high priority on my being ready for school, but they never gave money to Channel 13.
For my part, I give a small amount every month and answer phones during the March pledge drive at UNC-TV in Durham, North Carolina. I don’t do it for the tote bag, the Grover mug, or for my kids because I don’t have any.
I do it for the students like the ones in my kindergarten class whose parents can’t spend the time teaching letters and numbers, but still hope that their children are ready for the first day of school.