The news for parents and children this week was that Sesame Street, the old standby TV show, is moving to a new location. For at least five years new episodes of the program will air first on HBO but after nine months will be available to Public Broadcasting Stations as in the past.
This news has provoked considerable controversy. A major criticism is that the move to a premium cable channel implies a move toward a higher income population that can afford the subscription fee involved. The idea is that this reflects an abandonment of the original goal and mission of Sesame Street. That goal was to use the program as an educational tool to prepare young children for school, especially children from low-income families who did not have the advantages of attending pre-school.
In many ways it is Sesame Street that has been abandoned rather than the other way around. When the program was created in the 1960’s, it was the era of Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” which included educational goals for young children such as Head Start. The Chairman of the FCC during the Kennedy administration, Newton Minow, had called television a “vast wasteland,” and children’s programming was no exception. Public television was in its infancy and the use of television for educational goals was very much in the air. The time was ripe for the support of an endeavor that sought to offer positive value for children.
The initial funding that made the creation of Sesame Street possible came from the Federal Government and private foundations. The Children’s Television Workshop, the program’s production company, developed an approach based on collaboration between producers, writers, educators and researchers. The creators recognized that they would need to have ongoing sources of funding and so created a non-broadcast division for creating and publishing books and Sesame Street Magazine. In time, much of the revenue came from licenses and products as well as corporate sponsorship, meaning advertisements before and after each episode.
This story follows the fate of public broadcasting itself. PBS is being attacked now for deserting Sesame Street financially but public stations are in the same position of constantly seeking funding support, including repeated interruption of regular schedules for fund raising purposes. To the degree that the goal for public broadcasting was to serve educational goals in the broadest sense, this goal has not received the government support that is needed and was originally intended. On the contrary, sustaining the diminished contribution that still exists requires a constant battle. In this regard, it reflects the absence of needed government support for education itself.
In a sense, the Sesame Street move that appears to cater to a new, more affluent demographic, recapitulates an issue that existed in its early days on the air. At that time even TV set ownership was not completely widespread so not all of the intended audience had access to sets themselves. Beyond that, initially, it was middle-class mothers who understood the value of Sesame Street at a time when there was almost nothing else of value for children available. The children who already came from homes where they received input along the lines promoted by the program were the ones getting additional benefits from watching. One might say that the kind of polarization criticized now existed then.
Of course, Sesame Street spread far and wide to many countries and in many languages until it reached most young children in almost all demographic groups. But now technological changes have transformed media along with changing the world at large. New programs of higher quality for children have been developed offering variety and competition. Beyond that, modes of transmission and viewing have undergone great changes which are transforming media programming and audience viewing habits even further.
Through all of this, the issue of funding looms large for all attempts at quality programming and tends to push producers toward more commercial models. When it comes to programs for children, the ideal of educational content still leaves room for discussion. In the move from instructional based content to education in a broad sense, the question of values comes into play. Just as in the larger world of education, there are conflicting views about what is important for children’s development.
Parents are the ultimate arbiters of the values they want imparted to their children. Which perhaps points to knowing what our children are watching and using our own voices to moderate what is coming through on the screen – whether TV, computer, telephone or tablet.