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Can You Tell Me How We Got Here, From Sesame Street?

Right now, no one is neglecting kids' TV -- it's all over TV, newspapers and magazine, blogs and social media. So, let's use this moment to defend media content (not just TV) that delivers flexible, proven, cost-effective, equitable and engaging teaching and learning.
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The past week has seen much outrage and hyperbole in the wake of Sesame Workshop's announcement that Sesame Street will have a first window on HBO, nine months ahead of its PBS broadcast.

When it comes to children's public service television, however, we reap what we sow. Edward L. Palmer, one of Sesame Street's founders, wrote long ago that America could serve all the nation's children with outstanding children's educational TV for a penny a day. Fred Rogers, in his seminal exchange on public TV funding with U.S. Senator John Pastore in 1969, noted that producing a full episode of his program cost the same as making two minutes of a commercial cartoon.

Still, we never adequately funded U.S. public broadcasting, not just to educate every child but to provide all audiences with content commercial TV can't or won't provide. Most producers of PBS Kids' series have to raise the lion's share of their needs; articles on Sesame Street estimate that PBS provides just 10 percent of the annual cost of new production.

By comparison, the BBC is able to fully fund its most important and iconic children's series. Of course, UK public TV had a more than 30-year head start before commercial channels were permitted. It also had a clear mission: the BBC's first General Manager, Lord Reith, called on TV to educate, inform and entertain the whole nation, free from political interference and commercial pressure. In the U.S., commercial TV came first, with public broadcasting almost an afterthought. Despite early efforts to protect it from political interference (forward funding and "heat shields" between its Congressional overseers and content executives), it's faced constant editorial second-guessing and defunding threats.

So, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the situation that precipitated Sesame Workshop's difficult choice. Or perhaps no blame is necessary, because for Sesame Street's target audience the new arrangement is irrelevant.

To say that any toddler will be harmed by the nine-month delay between HBO's debut and PBS' window is akin to saying that babies born in September are disadvantaged compared to those born in January. Sesame Street episodes are neither sequential nor time-sensitive; a child can arrive on the Street on any day, and can view that day's episode (which, most weeks of the year, will be old) on PBS or HBO or from a digital recorder or a DVD. He or she can watch on a flat-screen TV, tablet, smartphone or game console and still gain fundamental early learning skills. Moreover, each child will benefit from the program uniquely based on age and developmental stage -- a two-year-old will understand the show differently from a four-year-old. Finally, every toddler parent knows that kids have an insatiable appetite for re-watching favorite shows: even if they've seen an episode on HBO, if it's still engaging and relevant, they'll watch and learn on PBS.

If Sesame Workshop needed a new strategy for financial support, choosing HBO as a partner seems inspired. Some believe that because it's a premium channel, it creates "haves" and "have nots." Another view, though, is that its narrower distribution than other likely partners -- Netflix, Amazon Prime or Hulu, for example -- it is less likely to "cannibalize" later PBS viewing. More drastically, imagine the howls had the Workshop chosen a commercial channel, which would pave Sesame Street with 12.5 minutes per hour of advertising speed bumps.

Sesame Workshop and The Fred Rogers Company have responded to past moments of crisis (e.g., 9/11, devastating hurricanes) with timely support videos, either to help parent talk with their children or addressing kids directly. Never, however, have these been instantaneously incorporated into daily episodes, so no one needs fear that only HBO subscribers will get reassurance or guidance. Indeed, when Sesame Street has incorporated difficult issues into the series, it's been done deliberately to create a timeless story, as when Mr. Hooper died.

When Sesame Street debuted, the only competition was the three broadcast networks. 20 years later, cable television brought 24-hour children's channels (including non-commercial, educational options like Nickelodeon's Noggin and Disney's preschool block), raising both the stakes and the costs for PBS.

Even then, though, no one could have imagined the "what I want, when I want, where I want it" 2015 media world. Myriad choices of platform blossom into almost infinite content options. Television is made in basements and mega-corporations; it's six seconds long and feature length; it's pushed and pulled into homes; it's linear and interactive.

Throughout this sea change, PBS Kids has (mostly) stayed on course, evolving from public broadcaster to public service media organization. It's invested strategically in digital expansions, thoughtfully using each technology to its best educational effect while choosing distribution and play platforms that don't disadvantage kids who can't afford the latest devices.

The one thing that hasn't expanded is funding, and it's hard to find options for making educational TV sustainable that don't alienate activists, parents or regulators. Corporate underwriting? Too akin to advertising. Licensing and merchandising? Exploit children's consumerism. Pledge drives? Encourage kids to nag their parents. Subscriptions or premium content? Parents can only afford so many, and that would directly segregate the audience economically.

I don't want to deny that these are worrisome times for public service children's media. This moment of truth hit the most-watched, most-honored children's television series in the world. Sesame Street is the so-called "longest street in the world" and a part of childhood for nearly every American younger than 50.

Other shows with shorter pedigrees will surely come to crisis, as well. Will they follow Sesame into new partnerships and will those deals be as carefully conceived? Will PBS standards for curriculum and content be given primacy, even when multiple distributors are involved?

Most important, will Sesame's migration to HBO spark Americans to stand up for public broadcasting? Ed Palmer titled his book Children and Television: A Crisis of Neglect. Winston Churchill said "never let a good crisis go to waste." Right now, no one is neglecting kids' TV -- it's all over TV, newspapers and magazine, blogs and social media. So, let's use this moment to defend media content (not just TV) that delivers flexible, proven, cost-effective, equitable and engaging teaching and learning.

Full disclosure: I am a member of PBS Kids' Next Generation Advisory Board.

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