Sesame Street has moved to HBO:
“It is more like things look now,” Ms. Osbahr added. “When Sesame Street was created, it was kind of more like New York Bronx. Now, Oscar has a recycling can. That is amazing.”
“Sesame Street” is performing a delicate balancing act between old and new; even as it seeks to preserve its mission of using the power of entertainment media to educate children, it is trying to remain relevant and available to a generation of children who do not distinguish between a television and a mobile phone screen.
“If you know the audience, you can serve them better, tell better stories, and they will love you more,” said Brown Johnson, executive vice president and creative director at Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit group behind the program.
To that end, episodes will be trimmed from an hour to a snappier half-hour, which is viewed as a more manageable amount of time for children to focus. The classic theme song and intro will get a new spin — the song still asks for directions to Sesame Street, but the intro sequence will for the first time take place on the set, which remains at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens.
The new season will feature fewer celebrity and parody segments, largely because preschoolers often do not know the stars or understand the references. More powerful than having a boldface name present the letter of the day, Ms. Johnson says, is to have Gwen Stefani sing about being a best friend. Other celebrity appearances include Pharrell Williams singing “B Is for Book” and Ne-Yo singing “You’ve Got a Body So Move It.” One spoof this season, “Orange Is the New Snack,” about bringing healthy snacks to preschool, airs on Jan. 30.
While Big Bird, Mr. Snuffleupagus, Oscar the Grouch, and Bert and Ernie still make appearances, story lines will feature a smaller group of Muppets — Elmo, Abby, Cookie Monster and Rosita — so that children will see “familiar faces each week,” Ms. Johnson said.
Most impressions of the new show focus on the obvious irony of the paradigmatic public television show now being something you have to pay quite a bit for. Mixed in is the regret (among adult reviewers at least) for the lost freedom, danger, and dirt of yesterday’s childhood compared to today’s overprotected and oversanitized youth:
While cutting back some features (the producers have said there will be fewer pop-culture parodies), the show has expanded in other ways. The human cast adds Suki Lopez as Nina, a bilingual Hispanic neighbor. (HBO’s description says she works at the coin laundry and the bike store; perhaps she needs two jobs to afford premium cable.) And a bouncy new closing song stresses social skills as much as the ABCs: “You’re getting smarter, stronger, kinder/On Sesame Street!”
“Kinder”? That’s a lofty promise for a TV show, but then parents have invested a lot of trust in “Sesame Street.” That may be why the HBO deal, even if it got Big Bird a new nest, inspired such Bernie Sandersian outrage. An institution rooted in the ideal of equal opportunity is now, like air travel, one more tiered experience.
PBS will offer half-hour “best of” episodes in the meantime, and it’s not as though scientists are discovering new numbers and letters. But it is dissonant to promote the new format as improved and newly relevant while also arguing that it doesn’t matter how soon children see them.
Maybe the reality is an unpalatable one to say in so many words: Like the newest digital tablet, the latest “Sesame Street” isn’t an essential. But it’s nice, if your parents happen to have the money.
The “Sesame Street” that debuted in 1969, free to the public, was like a tenement commune run by hip parents and their artist friends. The early episodes had beautiful and terrifying number animations scored to wild jazz. In the opening titles, kids frolicked without adult supervision on a city street. Cookie Monster smoked a pipe. The set was gritty and lived-in; incidental traffic noise played over outdoor scenes, and Ernie and Bert shared a dank basement apartment.
It was free-range kids’ TV, experimental, rough and — for all its deserved acclaim — far removed from later generations of educational TV that was sanitized for our protection. A 2006 DVD release of early episodes of the show was labeled “intended for grown-ups.”
“Sesame Street” changed many times before HBO came along. Elmo clawed inexorably up the ranks, claiming the final segment of the show for himself. The theme was rearranged, the color palette brightened. The format — described by one of the show’s creators, Joan Ganz Cooney, as a rapid-fire “‘Laugh-In’ for kids” — became more narrative, like children’s TV on channels like Nickelodeon.
In truth, the new HBO arrangement may make little difference to today’s children, who engage with franchises less through first-run TV than through games, clips and old episodes replayed — and replayed and replayed — on computers and mobile devices. At heart, this latest version isn’t vastly different from the Elmo-dominated, younger-child-focused “Sesame Street” of the past several years.
To an old resident’s eye, though, the neighborhood has changed. In the second new episode, Oscar the Grouch is back, his dented-up trash can ensconced next to a spiffy recycling bin, in one of those tasteful wooden garbage corrals people pay four figures for in Park Slope, Brooklyn. “There’s nothing but niceness on Sesame Street!” he grouses to cheerful Elmo.
Lost sometimes in our reactions to a changing childhood is the way these changes are rooted in our changing conceptions of adulthood– chiefly, that we hardly have any conception of adulthood as an arena with its own unique concerns and preoccupations (except perhaps for sexuality and intoxication, which each grow in imagined importance as other avenues of strictly adult enjoyment recede.) Harry Potter broke so many records for book sales not just because of the increasing globalization of the publishing market, but also because grown-ups without children (particularly adult women) were much more willing to invest emotionally in an entertainment putatively aimed at children. Seven of the top seven films of 2015 would be considered children’s (mostly boys’) entertainment in an earlier era: the new Star Wars, Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Inside Out, Furious 7, Minions, and Hunger Games. Many of the arguments over poptimism are best described as music for middle schoolers replacing music for high schoolers in the listening library of 30-something critics.
The original Sesame Street was so different from today’s not just because its creators were less likely to view childhood as a protected arena, sheltered in a deluxe wooden enclosure from the dirt and garbage of the world, and not just because the pop culture parodies and celebrity appearances are no longer necessary to seduce parents into watching with their child, now that we all have our own individual LCD screens. It was also about the message of the show itself. The message of Sesame Street Fever (above) or Stevie Wonder’s classic performance (below) was that there was an adult world and culture into which childhood could adventure, explore, and then return to its own domains and concerns.