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New 'Sesame Street' Deal Is All About Economics


How do you get to "Sesame Street"? Not a direct route, as it turns out. After 45 years on PBS, Sesame Workshop has struck a deal with HBO. New episodes will air first on the premium-cable channel, then nine months later on PBS. HBO's generous budgets will allow Sesame Workshop to produce almost twice as many episodes, but they'll be half an hour, down from an hour. Is this bad news for public broadcasting? We're joined now by NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik in New York. David, thanks very much for being with us.


SIMON: What does it say that a show that was meant to reach children in underserved communities now has its future tied to a premium-cable channel?

FOLKENFLIK: I think there are two implications, one of which is that it's telling that there isn't a kind of national commitment to invest significant funds in continuing "Sesame Street" out of, you know, federal taxpayer or other public dollars. And the second thing has to do with the way in which we consume video these days. Part of the way that Sesame Workshop had defrayed the costs of production of "Sesame Street" over the years was through the sales of DVDs. Well, you know, my 3-year-old watches it on an app online in short increments. The DVD sales have just fallen off a cliff. And the second thing is because of that very same dynamic of how people consume - think television viewing in traditional linear sense has gone down, too - and that's affected the way in which people have had to think about television.

SIMON: Can PBS stations now look at their viewers and say, pledge now to keep Big Bird and "Sesame Street" on the air when HBO is footing most of the bill?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, as, you know, one might've said once on the dating scene, it's complicated. The one thing PBS has always offered is it's universal. It's free. And so what PBS stations can say is we are the only ones that afford universal coverage of this. We will make sure that nobody comes to us and has to pay a dime. So they're still going to make that case, but it's a lot harder against critics who want to zero-out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, for PBS and for that matter, for NPR and public radio. It's a lot harder to defend against their attacks if you say, well, the exact same content is available, although you do have to pay for it privately, through the premium-cable channel HBO.

SIMON: Which anticipates the question, does PBS, which uses much more of the public dollar than, for example, NPR does for its production costs - television being a more expensive medium - did they lose some of their political support in Congress with this move of "Sesame Street" to HBO?

FOLKENFLIK: I think it's a little harder rhetorically. Big Bird was sort of one of the more powerful weapons against conservative critics. But yeah, it makes it tougher. And I've talked to folks about that in the public broadcasting realm, but I would say that they're intending to say, we offer this to the entire nation, to the 115 or so million households that have television one way or another. And, you know, HBO might have that for maybe 30-some million subscribers. It's a little different.

SIMON: What about the significance of "Sesame Street" being cut to half an hour? I mean, does this mean that our kids can't watch an hour-long show?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I talked about this at some length with Sesame Workshop's CEO, Jeffrey Dunn. And he said that "Sesame Street" was trying to follow the practices and habits of its actual viewers, children. It had experimented with PBS over the last year with a 30-minute version and a 60-minute version. It found, actually, a heavier usage - according to what I was told both from PBS and from Sesame Workshop - found heavier usage with a shorter show. And because so many young viewers are coming to it first through apps - you know, presumably on their parent's smartphones or iPads or what have you - they're watching it in shorter increments. They may not be watching it in even 30-minute lengths.

SIMON: Yeah.

FOLKENFLIK: They may be watching it in 11 or 8-minute lengths at a time. So there's a - there's a sense that simply to keep it to a 60-minute format because that's how it was created four and a half decades ago is losing the thread a little bit with how people actually consume TV, even at such a young age.

SIMON: NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik, thanks so much.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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