The gentrification of "Sesame Street": Cashing out, once and for all, from the radical notion that the urban working class are people, too

"Sesame Street" hasn't only been sponsored by the letter "Z" for a while, but here's why the shift to HBO matters

Published August 17, 2015 3:57PM (EDT)

Sesame Street (AP/Sesame Workshop/Richard Termine)
Sesame Street (AP/Sesame Workshop/Richard Termine)

Well, it’s been a long time coming, but it’s time to admit that like every other trendy NYC neighborhood that gets spotlighted on a TV show, "Sesame Street" has succumbed to gentrification.

I admit I haven’t been a regular viewer of the program since I hit puberty, having long ago familiarized myself adequately with the alphabet and basic shapes and colors for the sake of my career goals.

But I don’t know what else you can call it when the show will be delivering its new season as an exclusive for HBO, a premium cable channel that makes it notoriously difficult to view its exclusive “prestige” content without a pricey subscription.

Apparently some annoying right-wing prudes at the Parents Television Council provided an easy strawman for HBO apologists by saying the problem with this move is that there’s lots of “offensive” content on HBO--"Game of Thrones," "Boardwalk Empire," "Girls" and "Last Week Tonight with John Oliver." They say that "Sesame Street" has damaged its wholesome brand by associating itself with these programs.

Well, I have no problem with graphic violence and sex and profane bons mots from John Oliver’s filthy, clever little mouth.

I do have a problem with the fact that the fans of "Game of Thrones" and Lena Dunham and John Oliver--affluent hipsters and yuppies like me--are the people whose children are in the least need of "Sesame Street."

Tom Scocca at Gawker has already pointed out that this move is a betrayal of "Sesame Street"’s mission to provide open access educational materials for all kids, one that takes the viral support of PBS and "Sesame Street" as a democraticizing cultural force from the 2012 election and throwing it back in those supporters’ faces.

But he doesn’t go into detail about just how big of a shift in priorities for "Sesame Street" this is, and how long it’s been coming.

I’m going to play hipster here and say that "Sesame Street" was a very different show back in the old days, “before they got big.” "Sesame Street" was originally not just radical but downright culturally utopian. "Sesame Street"'s parent organization, formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop (now the Sesame Workshop), was born of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society culture in the 1960s; the driving force behind the CTW, a woman named Joan Ganz Cooney, came to children’s educational TV after a background in activist documentaries and televised “teach-ins.”

The basis of Ganz Cooney’s famous “little dinner party” where a small group of TV executives and developmental psychologists came up with the idea for "Sesame Street" was a simple formula--poor kids watch more TV than rich kids, thanks to poor kids having busy parents and being more likely to be “raised by TV.” Poor kids get less education than rich kids. Make TV that’s educational--good TV that’s educational, TV that was “addictive” in the way successful shows are rather than the crappy low-budget afterthought TV that most children’s programming was back then--and you might level the socioeconomic playing field.

The idea has its obvious flaws, which were criticized at the time. (Doesn’t all of this just train kids to watch more TV? Doesn’t the constant need to entertain necessarily distort your message? Neil Postman, etc.) But the mission is undeniably noble and shockingly radical even for today.

"Sesame Street" was never “culturally neutral”; "Sesame Street" was, in its original conception, specifically aimed at reaching the American underclass, the urban poor. (Ganz Cooney originally conceived of "Sesame Street" as being set in the Alphabet City area of the East Village, hence the name of the parody "Avenue Q.")

The original setting revolves around 123 Sesame Street, a brownstone whose smallest apartment is a basement studio (inhabited by unemployed bachelors Ernie and Bert) and whose largest is a cozy, modest two-bedroom inhabited by Gordon and Susan (who are the building’s live-in landlords). The neighborhood kids hang out at a simple playground next to 123 Sesame Street that consists of an asphalt lot with a slide, a jungle gym and a chalked-in hopscotch court.

While it would be a stretch to say that Oscar the Grouch directly represents a homeless guy (as Dave Chappelle postulates), it’s true that the overflowing trash can and pile of discarded lumber Oscar lives in (with a giant bird’s nest in it) evokes a downscale neighborhood. The first episodes of "Sesame Street" contain a delightfully dark, cynical take on the daily frustrations of life as an urban subway rider that would never make it on the show today.

As a somewhat coddled child of the suburbs, watching "Sesame Street" in the 1980s and 1990s meant being plunged into a foreign environment--watching without really understanding why the kids’ playground was so barebones compared to the one at my school, seeing professions like “local grocer” and “taxi driver” and “lunch counter server” that were meaningless to me in my neighborhood of supermarkets, universal car ownership and chain restaurants.

It was a big deal that "Sesame Street"’s human actors were a white-minority cast, and that the show regularly included Spanish lessons as part of its curriculum. It was a big deal that the show recruited real, non-actor kids from the inner city as its child cast--taking a page from Cooney’s earlier "Poverty, Anti-Poverty and the World," which forced government officials to confront real poor people affected by their policies. (The first child actor wouldn’t be hired until they cast Desiree Casado as Gabi in 1993.) It was a big deal that they did a segment about a white kid visiting his black friend’s home in an "ethnic" neighborhood that frankly addressed feeling culturally out-of-place but overcoming difference--something I didn’t appreciate the significance of at that age.

At its best, "Sesame Street" was a show defiantly for and about the urban poor, demanding that the rapidly growing demographic of middle-class suburban kids who watched it--kids like me--adapt to that culture, rather than adapting itself to us. This message was most explicit in "Sesame Street"’s first feature film, "Follow That Bird," which is--seriously--about Big Bird being taken off the mean streets by a meddling social worker determined to place him with a nice family in the suburbs.

It was a great vision. I would argue, despite my lack of familiarity with 2000s-era "Sesame Street," that it’s persisted, even if it’s been diluted by the merchandising and consumerism that have kept "Sesame Street" going all this time. I’m okay with spoiled suburban kids’ parents shelling out ridiculous sums for Tickle Me Elmo dolls if it kept "Sesame Street" free for the rest of the world.

"Sesame Street" held out a long time. It survived the ill-conceived attempt to gentrify the street with the 1993-1999 “Around the Corner” set, adding upscale locations to the street like the Furry Arms luxury hotel and a big new park and playground. It survived the slimy businessman “Ronald Grump” attempting to buy out the property to build a luxury hotel in the 1994 25th anniversary special--a joke that, given this year’s events, seems less funny today.

But now "Sesame Street," facing a revenue crunch, has given in and welcomed the hipsters in.

Yes, I know, HBO isn’t the bad guy here. The episodes will still be available to poor kids for free, just on a nine-month (!) delay. It was this or watch "Sesame Street" go off the air completely.

But it still stinks, especially because it reflects the degree to which times have changed. "Sesame Street" was able to raise $8 million in funding from donors--in 1969 dollars--back when it first started, fully half of which came from the federal government and its newly created Corporation for Public Broadcasting. A while ago Twitter was passing around a video of Fred Rogers testifying to the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969--his recitation of the lyrics to his “What Do You Do With the Mad That You Feel” so moved the committee that they immediately approved a grant to PBS for $20 million.

For a while, out of the 1960s came a burning belief that the media and its effect on our children mattered, and that giving children alternatives to exploitative commercial schlock was a worthy use of the public purse.

But by 1999 that money had dried up. "Sesame Street" broke one of its original cardinal rules, to never accept direct corporate funding—the joke behind its “Brought to you by the letter Z” tagline--and started airing commercial messages from Discovery Zone, which Ralph Nader called out as the beginning of the end for the show’s integrity.

"Sesame Street" is still around for now. But the HBO deal means it now exists at the sufferance of affluent families, families nothing like the ones "Sesame Street" portrays--people who are, even if they don’t acknowledge it, slumming it. A good percentage of HBO’s predicted viewership might even be young childless millennial assholes like me who will be watching the show ironically.

And that’s the way all children’s TV seems to be going. Ganz Cooney created "Sesame Street" to end inequality; Jim Henson frankly stated his goal in putting "Fraggle Rock" on HBO way back in 1983 was to “save the world.” When Fred Rogers testified in defense of "Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood" he testified to starting out with a budget of $6,000 per episode to make his show--a paltry sum even in 1969, as he says, enough to pay for less than two minutes of a typical cartoon--but he felt it was worth it to provide children with an “expression of care.”

Where’s that utopian idealism today? That iron-willed determination to find the money in order to make good TV for kids, rather than to make good TV for kids in order to make money?

I’m not saying today’s shows for kids are bad. A lot of them are excellent. But they’re also generally very clearly entertainment products, made with turning a profit in mind, and aimed at affluent kids who make good consumers. I’m as happy as anyone that LeVar Burton revived "Reading Rainbow," but it says something that the only way he could make it sustainable was a subscription-based freemium app for iPad and Kindle Fire. (Thankfully, there was a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to bring it to other platforms and waive the subscription fee for underprivileged classrooms.)

Despite what marketers would have you think, not everyone has an iPad or a Kindle. Not everyone has cable TV or HBO. Hell, not even everyone has Internet access.

The vision behind "Sesame Street" was once specifically to reach the kids that couldn’t be reached any other way, kids who had over-the-air TV and not much else--households that still make up about 15 percent of America.

Now, the first thought everyone turns to when trying to fund a kids’ show is to get on a specialized cable network for kids, to Nick Jr. or Sprout or Cartoon Network--or better yet to make a smartphone or tablet app that can be monetized directly. Now it’s pretty much assumed that you’re going to go after the kids whose parents can afford to keep your show going.

Plenty of good work still gets done. Plenty of kids are still helped. But the kids who need help the most generally aren’t. We can’t afford to do it. No one’s willing to make the multimillion-dollar grants to do so, the financial sacrifice to reach out to our nation’s neediest and most vulnerable.

If anything it’s the opposite--the trend has been for the most successful kids’ shows to end up “gentrified,” to be appropriated by hipsterish young adults, and for the grownup fans with the disposable incomes and the social media megaphones to take up all the attention from the show’s original purpose.

Again, not that that’s bad. I cop to being one of those adults--I’m a huge fan of "Steven Universe." But I don’t need children’s shows to appeal to me. I have plenty of shows that already appeal to me. Every time I see something else tailored to appeal to me and to people like me--educated, well-connected 18-35-year-olds--I wonder what invisible impoverished kid some marketer decided to ignore.

Absent the will to make financial sacrifices to make quality products for the poor, the poor get cheaply made dreck. In 1961 television--the preferred entertainment of the poor--was condemned by FCC chairman Newton N. Minow as a “vast wasteland,” a race to the bottom of violent spectacle, shitty jokes, exploitative manipulation and crass commercialism.

If there’s an Internet equivalent to over-the-air TV, it’s YouTube--the totally-free, watchable-from-anywhere alternative to the Kindle apps and HBO Go walled gardens of the Web. If I had to guess where the kids whom Ganz Cooney wanted to reach in 1969 are hanging out online, it’s randomly browsing YouTube videos, not using the Reading Rainbow app or streaming episodes of "Sesame Street" through the official PBS app.

And no one has bothered to replicate Ganz Cooney’s heroic efforts to establish an oasis in the wasteland. When it comes to free, easily accessible content on the Web, it’s a wasteland so vast and so blighted as to make the quiz shows and Westerns of the 1961 TV listings seem like paradise--an endless torrent of cat videos and porn and screaming racist rants.

I have a couple of friends--who are affluent enough to afford an HBO subscription and iPad apps and all the rest of that jazz--who tell me stories about how their kid’s favorite thing to browse is YouTube streams of people playing video games, and how they’re getting worried because the vast majority of these streams are peppered with profanity and racial slurs that he’s getting old enough to understand.

I’m only 31, but I’m already deeply worried about Kids These Days. I’m worried that nobody my age seems to really give a damn about kids, that the mercilessly efficient logic by which the post-Mr. Rogers media runs leaves kids out of the equation entirely. I’m worried about 14-year-old kids whose formative learning experiences apparently came from deranged bigoted dudes ranting into the camera about feminazis, because that’s a huge portion of YouTube’s content base thanks to being a great way to make click-based revenue.

In "Sesame Street"’s 25th anniversary special, Ronald Grump comes in vowing to bulldoze Sesame Street and build something more profitable in its place, saying that as a hardnosed capitalist he won’t let any question of sappy sentiment stand in his way. The tearful pleas of Sesame Street’s residents leave him stonily unmoved.

Who saves the day? Oscar the Grouch, who is the only one who’s enough of an asshole--enough of a grouch--to openly defy him, to tell him that it doesn’t matter how much financial sense it makes, he can take his plans to “improve” Sesame Street and shove them.

One of the lessons I learned from "Sesame Street" is that ornery grouches have their place in criticism. And when it comes to the ongoing segmentation of our media--our children’s media--into premium content for the affluent and trash for everyone else, I’m very grouchy indeed.

By Arthur Chu

MORE FROM Arthur Chu

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