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Does Sesame Street’s new address change its mission?

August 14, 2015 at 6:30 PM EST
Sesame Street, the beloved children's television series and PBS staple since 1969, will have a new address coming this fall. A five-year partnership with HBO means episodes will air first on the premium pay cable channel before appearing on public television nine months later. Judy Woodruff discusses the changes with Gary Knell, former CEO of Sesame Workshop.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally: big changes at “Sesame Street.”

Yesterday, the long-running PBS children’s television series announced a new five-year partnership with HBO starting this fall. New episodes of the show, a PBS staple since it premiered in 1969, will appear first on the premium pay cable channel. Then it will air for free on their traditional public television home nine months later.

To help us explore what led to this change, and what it means, we turn to Gary Knell. He was CEO of Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit group behind the show, from 2000 until 2011. Then he was head of NPR, before moving to his current job as president of the National Geographic Society.

Gary Knell, great to have you with us.

GARY KNELL, Former CEO, Sesame Workshop: Thanks for having me back.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, tell us, what was behind this? Now that we have a day to digest the news, what do we attribute this to? What were the forces at work?

GARY KNELL: Well, I think you have got to look at this three ways, Judy.

For HBO, this is about streaming. They’re competing with Netflix, and for them — and Amazon Prime — and this is a way of getting a number-one quality brand onto their streaming platforms.

For “Sesame Street”, this filled an economic gap. And their economic model for many years has really been filled by home video and toys and books and other things that they were able to monetize off the brand to pay for the production in a lot of ways from — for PBS. And this is a way of plugging that gap and giving them running room.

And I think, for PBS, it’s a little bit of an admission that maybe they’re a little bigger than “Sesame Street.” They have 19 preschool and kids shows on PBS. And PBS KIDS has become a robust network that is bigger than “Sesame Street” now. It includes “Sesame Street.” That’s an important component, but it’s bigger than.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why HBO? We think of this as a — frankly, a channel that appeals to adults. It’s a premium pay cable thing. It’s something people are going to have to pay for. Why — couldn’t it work at PBS?

GARY KNELL: Well, it could, but I think, for HBO, this is quite a brilliant move, I think, to go after millennial audiences and young parents who grew up with “Sesame Street.”

And, again, they’re in a fight to the death now, not so much about their cable channel, so to speak, but it’s much more about streaming. It’s this a la carte world, where we’re now competing against every piece of content ever invented, from a cat video to “Gone With the Wind,” every night, and unless you have great a la carte programs, you’re going to be in a competitive disadvantage to the Netflixes and the Amazon Primes of the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about implications, though, Gary, now for children’s programming? The premise of “Sesame Street,” “Sesame Street” Workshop was to bring quality educational programming to all kids, kids who were underserved, whose parents might not have been able to expose them to other things. What about that original mission?

GARY KNELL: Well, the mission doesn’t change for “Sesame Street.” This is a way for them to continue to do great work. They take child development very seriously.

When I was there, we did programs with military families. They’re doing things around the world that a lot of people don’t do to promote education. This will give them the resources to do that and stay with a nonprofit mission that they’re to do.

It’s just that they’re going to be on other networks. They have been on other networks for a long time. There have been cable channels with Noggin and with Sprout. They did specials way back when with NBC and ABC. So, it’s not necessarily a new thing.

And today, Judy, I think it’s really important that these organizations, educational organizations, are on as many platforms as they can, including PBS, which has its own streaming and its own deals with over-the-top platforms, which they have to be in. They have got to reach audiences where they are, or they’re not going to meet their nonprofit mission.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about those kids who may not have access to pay — who don’t have access to pay cable? Yes, they will be able to see it nine months later. But it’s almost as if — are you creating two different classes of programming for children?

GARY KNELL: Well, you could look at it that way. I don’t.

Kids, I don’t think, really can tell the difference if something was produced in March or December. This is really about programming that is still fresh and new to them, and they will be made available free of charge. That’s why public television is important, because it creates equity, it creates access.

And also the localism, whether it’s in Oklahoma, or Oakland or Omaha, you know, that they’re able to build out outreach programs for kids teaching literacy and numeracy and science around these 19 shows that PBS KIDS have. That doesn’t change. To me, this is additive to the process, rather than subtractive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I know you’re not at the Workshop anymore. You left there in 2011. But do you think we’re going to see more changes like this in children’s programming?

GARY KNELL: Yes, look, I think it’s a different world now.

And parents are not plopping their kids down in front of Nickelodeon, as they were 10 years ago, or MTV for teenagers. This is world now that moving much more a la carte. And I think it’s very important that we recognize that in short-form videos, long-form videos, texts. It’s changing education, it’s changing television, it’s changing how we all receive and process content. That is not going to slow down.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And finally, what about for public broadcasting, for our home, PBS? How big a loss is this? What are the consequences?

GARY KNELL: Well, you know, I think it’s something that they should be proud that “Sesame Street” has had a 45-year run and will continue for a very long time.

It will always be part of PBS, and it will continue that longstanding relationship. And PBS, as I said, has grown beyond “Sesame Street” and they have a lot to be proud of, Judy. They have 19 other shows and a lot more producers who want to do great educational programs for them, and more power to them. I think this is an additive day for children’s programming.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I think it’s good to remind everybody who are lamenting the coming loss of “Sesame Street.”

Gary Knell, it’s great to see you again. Thank you for being here.

GARY KNELL: Thanks so much. Thanks.

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