Sesame Street moving to HBO as part of five-year deal

14 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

HBO Is Gentrifying Sesame Street.

Telly Monster, left, Sonia Manzano, center, and Big Bird perform at the Daytime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles, on Sunday Aug. 30, 2009. (AP / Chris Pizzello) The premium cable channel and Sesame Workshop, which produces “Sesame Street,” on Thursday announced a five-year deal that will expand the “Sesame Street” footprint and its amount of programming. Known for its dramas and risque comedies aimed at adults, including Game of Thrones, True Detective and Girls, Time Warner’s HBO has formed a five-year partnership with Sesame Workshop in the hopes of becoming a major player in children’s television.

To those who associate HBO with the decidedly adult content of shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Entourage,” the news that the subscription cable network has struck a deal to host “Sesame Street” for its next five seasons comes with a bit of surprise, and a lot of questions. The move is the latest by HBO to better position itself against competitors including Netflix and, each of which have moved aggressively into children’s television through original content and rerun acquisitions. Will Bert and Ernie be headlining the next season of “True Detective?” Will Elmo make a cameo on “Girls?” While it’s true that the Sesame Street deal is unexpected from a content standpoint (Is Jon Snow coming back, but in the form of…Grover?), it does make sense in the context of other major programming moves the network has made this year to expand beyond the prestigious scripted shows and TV movies that traditionally been its calling card. If you want to picture what the area looked like then, imagine every image you’ve seen of Detroit’s decline and add random tire fires, roving packs of feral dogs, and violence. The deal will allow the Sesame Workshop, a non-profit educational organization, to produce almost double the content of previous seasons, HBO and the workshop said. “Our new partnership with HBO represents a true winning public-private partnership model,” said Jeffrey D.

Under the terms of the deal, starting this northern autumn HBO will become the first stop for new episodes of the children’s classic Sesame Street before they appear on their traditional home of PBS nine months later. The year-old Netflix-style app, which charges viewers $3.99 a month or $29.99 a year to view Sesame Street content, will be wound down at a later date to be determined, said Sesame Workshop chief operating officer Steve Youngwood, in an interview.

Thanks to that HBO cash, Sesame Street will be able to produce nearly twice as many episodes in a production schedule that had long been shrinking, and will develop new series for kids as well. But that didn’t stop my mom from teaching there, giving away her winter scarves and gloves to students in need, or even trying to adopt one of her students out of a life of abuse. Sesame Workshop will produce a “Muppet” spinoff series and develop a new original educational series for children for HBO, which has licensed more than 150 library episodes of Sesame Street, according to the statement. Although Sesame Street and the other children’s programming that HBO is getting will be available on its traditional TV channels, the real motivation is to have content available for its online services HBO Go and HBO Now.

In its wake will be a slimmed-down version that may provide access to more limited content for free, for example, or act as a portal for children to get to Sesame Street’s main Web site. Nearly a quarter of television content available on Amazon is children’s programming, according to SNL Kagan data from October 2014, and 17 percent of Netflix shows are likewise aimed at kids.

The company is still weighing what to do with the app, which Youngwood described as “core way” that children now consume content. “Two-thirds of children who first discover Sesame do so through some on-demand platform,” said Youngwood, “whether that’s YouTube or cable systems, or streaming video on demand, or a game.” Amid the transition, existing Sesame Go subscribers will keep being able to watch full episodes on their PCs, tablets and other mobile devices. Netflix first started a separate service of children’s programming in 2011, allowing parents to quarantine their children in a place where they wouldn’t encounter inappropriate material or tilt the service’s recommendation engine toward animated musicals. Years later, after I was born and watching Sesame Street myself, she’d often tell me about that day and how happy the kids were to see New York City children of diverse backgrounds like themselves on TV. The new episodes will begin airing as early as fall 2015, with HBO the exclusive, first-run subscription TV distribution partner for “Sesame Street” and the new series, in both English and Spanish.

Netflix in the following year signed a deal that, starting in 2016, will put all of Disney’s first-run movies onto its streaming service after they leave theaters. The premium channel has been expanding its offerings to reach a broader audience, recently announcing a major content deal with Vice Media, which is popular with younger audiences, and hiring former ESPN commentator Bill Simmons to host a weekly program and produce short-form videos for its streaming services. He played down the idea that a motivation for the pact was the success Netflix and Amazon are having with children and families. “What informs all our decisions is we want to put great programming on the network,” he said.

Preschoolers, even more so than the rest of us, increasingly get their TV by streaming it, and as most parents can attest, they are not exactly averse to seeing the same thing over and over. Next came a pact with DreamWorks Animation to produce 300 hours of new television programs featuring established DreamWorks characters and brand-new franchises. The kids who watch the show on live TV will probably not mind that the droll parodies of adult cable shows are dated, nor are they likely to miss out on new developments in the alphabet. The decision to phase out Sesame Go just a year after its launch highlights a dilemma for Sesame Workshop that may sound familiar to consumers who’ve seen other online services come and go. In addition to Sesame Street, HBO will also license approximately 50 past episodes of “Pinky Dinky Doo,” an animated series for preschoolers with a focus on early literacy, and “The Electric Company,” which relaunched in 2009, from Sesame Workshop.

In 2011, Netflix started a dedicated section for kids under 12 years old featuring TV shows and movies from the Disney Channel, Cartoon Network and others. Mr Dunn, a former top executive at Viacom’s Nickelodeon who became CEO of the non-profit educational organisation last October, said he started thinking about finding a partner soon after he joined. “It quickly became clear to me that the economics of the organisation needed to change,” he said. As for the funding problems that drove Sesame to the deal, it’s not quite as simple as “the government cut their money.” Sesame Workshop’s revenues have cratered not because of politics but because their commercial revenue streams, especially DVD sales, are evaporating. Sesame Workshop was operating a deficit and last fall he let PBS know that “we can’t continue to lose money like this.” In fiscal 2013 Sesame Workshop had total revenue of $US130.5 million and expenses of $US120.2m, according to its IRS filings as a non-profit organisation. Yes, if we had the lavishly supported BBC-style system that the U.S. never had, PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting might have been able to step in and feather Big Bird’s nest.

Rich Greenfield, an analyst at BTIG Research, said Netflix has retained subscribers by adding more children’s content, calling it “a critical glue” to its service. But even then, there’s long been debate over whether public broadcasting should spend limited funds on popular shows like Sesame Street–which at least have the option of striking deals–as opposed to programming that can’t, like documentaries, or supporting local stations in remote and low-income areas.

Streaming services are far easies to cancel and resubscribe than cable-TV, notes Rich Greenfield of BTIG, so the goal is to make that decision harder. “Remember when Netflix launched House of Cards, dropping all episodes at once, and investors feared consumers would sign up for three days, binge the entire series, and then disconnect?” he observed recently. “Netflix combated this risk by adding a significant amount of content that targeted all members of the family, with children’s content a critical ‘glue’ to its offering.” HBO didn’t have to worry much about using kids shows to retain customers until recently. For HBO, then, children’s programming is a vital part of enticing viewers to subscribe to choose the standalone HBO Now, launched this fall, over the others. Aereo was a streaming video service that took free, over-the-air television signals and streamed them live over the Internet, enabling you to watch your local TV stations from anywhere. Mr Dunn said he considered launching a subscription video-on-demand service for Children’s Television Workshop but ultimately decided the economics were “not very compelling” and that the organisation would be better off teaming up with a premium brand. But a Supreme Court decision last year found that its business model violated federal copyright laws, forcing Aereo to file for bankruptcy protection and sell off its assets at a tremendous loss.

Last month, it landed a deal with Bill Simmons, the popular sports blogger and TV personality who became a highly sought-after commodity for media outlets after he was fired from ESPN in May. Simmons, who launched ESPN’s Grantland website and was instrumental in the hit “30 for 30” series of sports documentaries, brings with him a huge fan following and the hopes that he will help revive HBO’s sports content. And now it was being sold, not just to commercial television, but to hypercommercial television, a gold-plated premium channel that requires either cable or broadband and then a subscription fee on top of that. Partnerships like those, combined with HBO’s established stable of prestige dramas, comedies, and documentary projects, make it something the Netflixes and Hulus of the world should take seriously. Of all the lessons Sesame Street can teach children who don’t come from privilege, the notion that they’ll be subject to a lifetime of injustice because of income inequality shouldn’t be one of them.

Like most controversies in children’s television, this one is really about the parents, about our ideals for childhood and how we fall short of them, about our anxiety in preparing our kids for the world. It’s parents who see this change and know that their children are being introduced, before they can even read, to a world that is tiered, tracked and sold on an a la carte basis. That might be an indication of tentativeness about the relationship between kids’ shows and advertising, says Seth Shafer, an analyst with the research group. Skepticism about advertising has also contributed to the rise of niche subscription services for kids, such as the Sesame Go website that offers a library of videos and games with Sesame Street characters for $4 per month. Shafer sees these services as having two things going for them: Parents are willing to pay to keep their kids happy, and once a kid is hooked on a show, mom or dad will likely do what it takes to keep the episodes streaming. “If my two-and-a-half-year-old [were] deprived of Curious George, my life would be such living hell,” he says.

It’s one more replacement of a public trust with a public-private arrangement, like a luxury developer given rights and tax breaks to build condos, in exchange for a certain percentage of affordable housing. It’s about knowing that this is just the first of many inflection points where your child will get a benefit if you have the money, and if not, not: quality daycare, a house in a good school district, tutoring, test prep.

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