Right now there is no shortage of things in this world for people of conscience to get righteously indignant over: the rollback of the civil rights of minorities and women, government overreach in the name of security, corporate greed run rampant, increasing evidence of environmental collapse, and so forth. These are well-trod topics that writers better versed in their particulars can speak to with greater authority than I could.
So I will keep to the rivers and the lakes that I’m used to. Let me tell you something that disturbs me right down to my core: the idea of Sesame Street moving to a distribution model wherein HBO airs episodes before PBS can.
I can’t claim much in the way of great personal accomplishment in this life to date, but one thing no one can take from me is that I was on Sesame Street in 1980 at the age of four. Before you get too excited, I was only on for about a month of taping, which pales in comparison to how long my sister and several of my cousins were on. This was all thanks to my aunt Amy, who from 1970 to 1980 was a floor producer on the show, generally thought to be the highwater period of its run. (My apologies to my aunt if I’m misparsing those dates & her job function.) In total I was in maybe 5 or 6 segments, though definitely conspicuously; unlike nowadays, the kids were still front and center. Before you ask, no, I do not have any tapes of my appearances. This predates widespread home video, thus it would not have been shared like that, and I’ve not pursued it since. My sister, who was on for years, has access to only a handful of her appearances online.
It isn’t anything special, but it’s mine. Thousands of kids have been on Sesame Street in its 46 years on the air. And that’s the operative phrase: “on the air.” It’s been a cornerstone of public television, a taxpayer-funded nigh-utility, meant as the exception to corporately-owned media that ever-increasingly dominates all channels of information, the internet being the saving grace those corporations have tirelessly assailed through lobbying for legislative sabotage over the past two decades. If this stalwart of public television takes its ball and, while not leaving, lets the rich kids play with it nine months earlier, does it not leave the rest of PBS to have to consider their profitability over their utility, exactly what PBS is NOT supposed to be about?
If I were more the conspiracy-minded type, I might suspect this was the 3 years-coming revenge of Mitt Romney for the palpable drop in his polls when he questioned whether Sesame Street could exist under his paradigm. Unfortunately, I don’t give Romney that much credit as an evil mastermind, nor a benevolent one, for that matter.
Someone else I don’t hold complicit in this betrayal is Sonja Manzano. If that name doesn’t ring a bell, this one should: “Maria.” For over 40 years Manzano portrayed the character, one of the first Hispanic women in a regular capacity on a mainstream television show, much less presented to as formative an audience. Less well known is that she’s been one of the executive producers of the show for some time, and while I don’t always agree with some of the creative directions they’ve taken with the format (“Elmo’s World,” anyone?), I’ve always believed she had the best of intentions there. I cannot prove anything, but her recent retirement just ahead of this announcement causes me to believe she may have strenuously disagreed with the decision, and made her bow to get going while the getting was good.
“But it’s just a kids TV show!” Well, if it was, then surely HBO wouldn’t consider it such a hot property, would they? Because it is not. It’s a cultural phenomenon, and that comes out of what high quailty it maintained for the pure love of educating children. When Jim Henson and company created it in the late ’60s, it was meant as a supplement for underprivileged kids, primarily those in urban slums. The original set evoked the ghetto, albeit a somewhat sanitized one; as the decades have passed, like reality, that ghetto has become gentrified, having been focus-grouped to death, or America’s lowest common denominator. Same difference: as a cash cow, its trappings had to contain minimal potential to offend the broadest audience.
Certainly, intellectual property owners can drive themselves into creative stultification by wondering what the creators would or would not have done. But that may be more a statement on the stagnating effect of copyright extension, when someone other than who is responsible for its inception attempts to continue to wring profits out of a marionette with its strings cut. There are exceptions, of course: One cannot begrudge those like Jack Kirby’s heirs for getting their fair share of the bonanza their sire was denied in life, and we may yet see a renaissance of the world of Star Wars now that The Maker has relinquished the reins to The House Of Mouse. Nevertheless, the tendency is to be either too conservative, trapping vitality in amber for fear of changing a good thing too much to remain profitable, or going too far off the reservation, to the extent that one wonders if it were necessary to slap established branding on something that is essentially a new concept.
In this life, you either die the hero, or live long enough to become the villain. And perhaps, in the realm of children’s edutainment, 50 years is just too long for intentions to remain as pure as they must be. Maybe it’s time for Sesame Street to call it a (sunny) day.