If Sesame Street has gentrified, it's our fault. Yes, us: the person writing this, and the people reading this.
Everyone who grew up with public television knew the phrase "…brought to you by the financial support of viewers like you." At the beginning and end of each of our favorite shows, the plea for funding was there. We've known for years that public media was struggling, that there was a war on public funding to "liberal" television, that many institutions were in peril. Cash-strapped colleges and states are considering auctioning off their public media airwaves to close budget shortfalls. Despite winning 26 Emmys and a Peabody award, Reading Rainbow had to die to in order to be gloriously reborn on Kickstarter.
But the Children's Television Workshop—better known as Sesame Street—chose a different path. Faced with mounting competition for the kindergarten set from deep-pocketed corporations, they did what any struggling neighborhood would do: find some private partners with development cash to make the old 'hood hot again.
This isn't the first time a financial crisis on Sesame Street prompted a gentrification project. According to Michael Davis' 2008 Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, facing competition from the cheerily suburban Barney, Sesame Street tried to breathe new life into the block. They refreshed the show with an initiative called "Around the Corner," boasting a kind of cul de sac to help upscale the brand. The Muppet Wiki remembers key elements of the short-lived set, including The Furry Arms Hotel, the Birdland jazz club, with live music hosted by Hoots the Owl, a dance studio owned by Celina, a subway station and a park, with a jungle gym and a pond.
All of those developments and amenities sound like your usual urban renewal plan. Normally, gentrification pisses people off because it's an investment plan that comes at the expense of those who lived in the neighborhood before it was cool. The fear of many people upon hearing about the Sesame-HBO deal was that it would betray the values of Sesame Street by featuring and fostering wealthier children over the needs of the underprivileged.
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But, honestly, Sesame Street isn't being gentrified—it's more accurate to say The Street is like your old hometown you ignored while you were out exploring New York City. As Jessica Goldstein revealed in her in-depth piece for ThinkProgress, Sesame Workshop has been fighting declines in revenue for years now, posting more than $20 million in losses over the last three fiscal years. Where were all of us while Sesame Street was struggling? Did we donate? Did we buy Sesame Street licensed merchandise over other brands? Did we support the local PBS stations that carried Sesame Street?
Or did we just assume that Sesame Street would always be there?
As far as my 2-year-old is concerned, nothing changed about Sesame Street. His eyes popped a bit at the new special effects, but all his favorites were still there. He enthusiastically clapped to the “Letter of the Day” and paused to stop me from writing this article when Count Von Count appeared to kick his “foot stomping Transylvania beat” to the “Number of the Day.” Elmo's World is still in full effect, so life is good. When the show ended, my son waved: “Bye Cookie! Bye Elmo! Bye Sessa Street!”
Sesame Street's rigorous academic focus and research-driven segments aren't as present in the 30-minute rush. I'll never forget watching Cookie Monster cover Icona Pop while discussing "Executive reasoning:"
But that may just be another market alignment from Sesame Street Workshop. It’s a little too early to try to call HBO an interloper into children’s TV—after all, the premium cable provider aired the “Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child” series in the mid-1990s featuring multiracial interpretations of classic fairytales.
Is it strange to turn to HBO for our Sesame Street fix and not PBS? Yes.
But is it better than letting another American institution die slowly? Certainly.