Academic Writing

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Sesame Street

Like I’m sure many people were, I was confused and surprise when I heard the news that the beloved public television TV show, Sesame Street would be moving over to premium HBO.  Sesame Street, home to childhood favorites like Big Bird, Snuffy, Bert, Ernie, Elmo and Grover (and others I know) taught generations of kids their numbers, letters, how to share, how to be nice and inclusive to other children, showed scores of videos of real kids doing real things alongside cartoons of a more whimsical nature.  We sat in front of that TV for a full hour, mesmerized.  It was a comfortable place we could both learn and be entertained.  For me, watching it in the 80s and early 90s, we didn’t keep coming back because of the technological achievements or for the critical acclaim.  We came back because that’s where we could find familiar friendly faces with whom we sang and enjoyed spending time.

When the news came that Sesame Street would be moving to HBO along came the announcement that the show would be shortened to a half hour and would focus mainly on Elmo, Cookie Monster, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, and relative newcomer Abby Cadabby.  Having a 15-month old daughter who is already obsessed with Elmo, I was relieved that Elmo would still be around, but saddened by the omission of so many of the other beloved characters that are getting pushed to the side for what – marketability?  Merchandising?  

I’ve been watching the HBO version with my daughter and for comparison sake have also been going back to the older episodes to make sure my nostalgia for the original format isn’t taking over my sensibilities.  That being said, this new version of the show is a far cry from where it originated.  The 1/2 hour format feels very rushed and compressed.  It starts with a 10-15 minute segment that takes place on Sesame Street, usually featuring Abby and Elmo and 1-2 human counterparts.  Then there’s a song that features all of the characters singing about what the letter of the day will be (it’s a total earworm, I don’t recommend listening to it unless you want to be kept up at night because you can’t get it out of your head) and then maybe another small sketch, and then a song with The Count and the rest of the cast of muppets singing about the number of the day (another, less offensive earworm) and then the show generally closes with either Elmo’s World or Elmo the Musical.  It's a nice neat, predictable package that doesn't veer too much outside of it's schedule.

This new format leaves much to be desired, and feels, essentially, like a dumbed down version of the original.  First of all, the letter and the number of the day are largely irrelevant to the viewer.  Whereas in the longer format version of the show would be introduced to a letter and a number and those would both be repeated in nearly all segments, there are so few segments now that even if it were repeated it would only happen 1 or 2 times.  Second, since the premiere there have yet to be any sketches that I’ve seen (and again, I watch with my toddler so full disclosure I’m occasionally distracted) that show real kids interacting in real and meaningful ways that the viewers can emulate. 

I lament the lacking educational component on this new shinier version of the show as what used to be on public, educational television is now on an entertainment channel vying for subscribers.  PBS will get second run-rights to the show after the 9 month exclusivity window closes, but the format will remain the same.  In the meantime, my daughter and I are watching both the PBS and the HBO versions.  The differences are still stark.  Even though PBS has shortened the show to a half hour, probably to prepare for the switch in a few months, they still manage to pack more education into each episode, ensuring that Murray gets around town teaching kids the “word on the street” or having a character interact with a celeb of the day to learn about the word of the day.  There’s more focus on counting and learning numbers during the heart of the show.  

True, television viewing habits have changed, and are constantly evolving, but don’t we owe it to our kids to give them the opportunity of longer attention spans instead of forcing the shortened spans of their parents’ on them right off the bat?  I know funding is tight for public television, and unfortunately this merger was probably essential for the show’s survival, but with that comes HBO’s creative input and rather than leaving the creativity and the education to the masters who have been entrenched in it for decades and who have the actual educational degrees, it seems as though that has been sacrificed for pure entertainment value.  No doubt HBO is a programming master and knows how to create and market quality television, but something about public programming moving to the premium pay space just doesn't sit so well with me.  Let me be clear, the new version of Sesame Street isn’t bad, it just isn’t as rich as it once was, or as it could be.