Last week, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit group behind the children’s television program, struck a five-year deal with HBO, the premium cable network, that will bring first-run episodes of “Sesame Street” to the premium cable network nine months before reaching PBS viewers for free.
Jessica Winter provides some of the background to the creation of “Sesame Street,”
The historical moment that made Sesame Street possible is unimaginable today. (Exhibit A: During one of the 2012 presidential debates, Mitt Romney held up Big Bird as an example of wasteful government spending. As PBS later pointed out, “the federal investment in public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget.”) The public television producer Joan Ganz Cooney got the idea for Sesame Street in 1967, during the decade of the War on Poverty, which produced the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964—among other things, this established Head Start, the health and education program for low-income pre-school children and their families—as well as Job Corp and the Social Security Act of 1965. And 1967 was also the year that Congress established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which brought us PBS and NPR.
In this fertile progressive epoch, Ganz Cooney raised $8 million (from the CPB, the U.S. Department of Education, and various foundations) to found the Children’s Television Workshop. Its flagship show, Sesame Street, had the mission of teaching basic alphabetical and numerical concepts to children ages three to five.
Ganz Cooney’s big bet was that the television set, present in 97 percent of American households by the mid 1960s, could become a delivery device of early education even to some of the poorest and most culturally deprived households. It could help close the gap between affluent children and their lower-income peers.
As for the change:
Sesame Street was founded to help low-income kids keep up with their more affluent peers. That is literally why it exists. It succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations. And now it is becoming the property of a premium cable network, so that a program launched to help poor kids keep up with rich kids is now being paywalled so that rich kids can watch it before poor kids can.
That in itself is not a tragedy or an injustice. Tragedy is the devastating funding cuts that Head Start has suffered in recent years, affecting tens of thousands of young children. Injustice is the nationwide lack of subsidized high-quality child care and universal pre-K. In this context, relocating Sesame Street to the gated community of HBO—even if that community’s gates swing wide at nine-month intervals—is only to be expected. There could be no more cruelly perfect metaphor for the ultra-efficient sorting processes of socioeconomic privilege.