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Big Bird has teamed up with Game of Thrones in a deal that will bring first-run Sesame Street episodes to HBO. The episodes will still be shown on PBS, albeit several months later.
The terms of the agreement allow for more Sesame Street episodes per season. The production company behind the series, Sesame Workshop (formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop), could only make 18 installments per year on PBS. This figure will be increased to 35. Sesame Street premiered on HBO on January 16, 2016, and the deal is for the next five television seasons. The New York Times has more on the overall transaction.
The idea of the show no longer being exclusive to PBS is likely foreign to many, but it’s a sign of the TV world that’s rapidly emerging — one in which there are more revenue streams than ever before, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find profitability, particularly for independent production companies like SW.
Sesame Street is not owned by PBS.
Though Big Bird and the other Sesame Street characters are among PBS’s most recognizable faces, the network does not own the show or its characters. They are instead owned by SW, which has produced the series since its debut in November 1969. In fact, almost none of PBS’s iconic programs are produced by member stations, foreign broadcasters, or independent filmmakers. The network has a programming budget, but it spends very little of it on original programming and instead concentrates on acquisitions.
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SW is the studio in the diagram below, while PBS is the network. (While PBS does not collect advertising revenue, it does sign corporate sponsorship agreements and accept viewer donations.) Also, you must try to play this Elmo’s World Quiz.
The issue with Sesame Street, as with so many other current programs, is that the DVD market has collapsed. Sesame Street used to sell a lot of home video copies of its episodes and “greatest hits” collections. That revenue has now been slashed as a result of the rise of sites like YouTube (where many of the best Sesame Street segments are legally available for free).
Though PBS has a reputation for receiving large amounts of government funding, this is not the case. What funding PBS does receive from the federal government is mostly used to keep stations that cannot rely on viewer donations afloat. (The majority of these stations are located in rural areas.) When Sesame Street lost its DVD revenue, PBS was unable to match it in terms of licensing fees.
HBO, on the other hand, is cash-rich due to its large number of subscribers. And, while the network is best known for its adult programming, it has been active in the children’s television market for decades. (For example, Fraggle Rock, another program starring Jim Henson Muppets, originally aired on HBO in the United States.)
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Though it’s unusual for an HBO program to become available on another outlet so quickly (as Sesame Street reruns will be on PBS nine months after their initial air date) and for HBO to purchase programming from a studio other than HBO, the financial terms of the deal — too expensive for PBS — are almost certainly a drop in the bucket for HBO.
This agreement goes against one of Sesame Street’s founding principles.
Sesame Street was revolutionary when it first aired in 1969 for many reasons, not the least of which was its commitment to teaching preschool children basic language and math concepts.
But it was also notable for its commitment to making itself available, for free, to as many American children as possible. At the time, NET (the network that would become PBS) was struggling to establish a national presence. The network’s national presence would be aided by the popularity of Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
HBO, of course, is not free in the majority of American households. It is the epitome of a luxury item. In that sense, this deal is a slight deviation from Sesame Street’s founding principles. It’s difficult to blame SW for this. Even so, the company found a way to make episodes available on PBS, whose youngest viewers are unlikely to be aware that the episodes they’re watching aired months earlier on pay cable.
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