Cookie Monster, Elmo, and Abby Cadabby, three of the most popular residents of Sesame Street, have long talked to children. Now they must also answer to HBO – and many other forces beyond their control.
"Sesame Street," the revered program that has taught preschoolers about letters, numbers, and even how to handle the death of a loved one over the course of nearly half a century, debuts on the Time Warner pay-cable service on Jan. 16, the first time its new episodes will not be seen initially on PBS.
As it does so, it will function not just as one of America's best-loved tools for teaching preschoolers their first words, but also as a pillar in HBO's strategy to win new subscribers during one of the most confused times in media-industry history.
That's because HBO is no longer just a cable network, and, as such, "Sesame Street" is no longer something just for kids. The Time Warner service is gearing up for a battle for consumer dollars with video-streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. To lure subscribers, the company has unveiled a slew of deals with distinctive creators like Jon Stewart, Vice Media, Bill Simmons, and, yes, the people who bring life to Grover, Big Bird, and Mr. Snuffleupagus.
"This is important for HBO's competition with Netflix, because kids' programming hasn't been a major part of its brand," said Amanda Lotz, professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan. "Offering distinctive, high-quality kids programming will maintain viewership year-round," she suggested, and help stem subscriber churn.
Shifts are inevitable. HBO declined to make executives available for comment, but during a reporter's visit to the "Sesame Street" set in Queens, New York, another expert on the matter weighted in – and poignantly. "It's always difficult when you go through changes, " noted Elmo, holding forth on the steps of the fabled 123 Sesame Street brownstone with Abby Cadabby while talking to staffers from Yahoo. "But the good thing about changes is they bring up new things you haven't done before."
Sesame Workshop, the educational nonprofit behind the show, has taken steps to ensure the process Elmo goes through is a simple one. HBO is not allowed to meddle in the creative direction of the program, said Steve Youngwood, the company's chief operating officer, in an interview. "HBO has absolutely no editorial input or oversight into the show," he said. "That was very important for us." He added: "I don't think the parameters of success will change at all."
Yet many other things about the program are being transformed as "Sesame Street" girds itself to battle for attention with a different generation of kiddie viewers. Sesame Workshop has pared episodes back to just half an hour, explained Carol-Lynn Parente, the executive who oversees all things Sesame. The changes weren't made in response to the move to HBO, but came about as producers focused on what its main viewers really wanted in an extremely fierce market for their attention.
"Our competition is primarily led with shows hosted by a singular character. There may be other characters or friends, but it's their show," Parente noted in a recent interview. "We have this ensemble cast."
Research suggested "Sesame Street" needed more cohesion, Parente said. The hour-long format was too much for the modern child, and the show was juggling too many characters at once. In the new season on HBO, episodes will last 30 minutes and only Cookie Monster, Elmo, and Abby will be guaranteed screen time in every outing (Grover, Big Bird, Rosita, and Oscar the Grouch are likely to make frequent appearances). Gone are the regular "Abby's Flying Fairy School" and "Super Grover" segments, and the show is likely to feature fewer vignettes with celebrities and will scale back on its satires of adult programs (a spoof of HBO's "Boardwalk Empire," known as "Birdwalk Empire," comes to mind).
"Sesame Street" will open with broader themes – maybe about how to deal with boo-boos, said Parente – and then tuck information about numbers and letters and emotional responses into those storylines. Kids might count the number of Band-Aids an injured Big Bird requires, she explained.
The set has been reworked, too. A tour of the neighborhood revealed a secret garden for Abby behind the main apartment; a newsstand that sells a green-tinged tabloid boasting the headline "Dial 'G' For Grouch" (and that looks a lot like the The New York Post); and a Hooper's Store with a new neon sign. There's even a depiction of a bridge, suggesting that Sesame Street is connected to a much larger civilization and not an isolated place that is solely the province of childhood.
It's that outside world that required the show to find a new roost. Sesame Workshop finances have been troubled in recent years, owing to the decline of revenue from DVDs. PBS provided only 10% of the show's production budget. A five-year pact with HBO allows for new episodes of "Sesame Street" to air on PBS after a nine-month window and calls for Sesame Workshop to create a spin-off featuring one of the Muppet characters (a "pitch process" is underway, said Parente) as well as a potential new series.
Will little fans notice the subtle differences? The theme song has been rendered more upbeat. Oscar's can has been moved to a more central location and given a new look. Suki Lopez joins the cast as the tinkering Nina. Big Bird lives in a tree. And Cookie Monster gets a segment all his own.
Kids "view 'Sesame Street' as a play-date with their favorite characters," Parente explained. "Any time they turn on the TV or turn on the tablet, they are having some fun with their friends, and they don't care if it comes from Season 45 or Season 46."
All the tweaks might make some adult fans pine for things lost. But producers have made an effort to keep many of the show's best-known elements. Discussion of the pared-down cast prompts reflection that Snuffleupagus, the wooly mammoth that at one time could not be seen by adults, was destined for the scrap heap.
Is he out? "In, baby!" proclaimed Parente. The battle for a viewership increasingly tuned in to subscription video on demand may force many changes on the nation's institutions of popular culture, but it's something of a relief to know this creature won't be one of them.