B is for Big Business: HBO, Sesame Street, and Children’s Television

You may need to borrow Dora’s Map to find your way to Sesame Street. It was announced Thursday, Sesame Street is moving to Home Box Office (HBO), an premium cable and satellite television network that is an operating subsidiary of Time Warner ([stock_quote symbol=”TWX” ]). Say is  isn’t so, Bert. Is it time we rethink taxpayer supported television?

Sesame Street
Hans / Pixabay

Sesame Street’s home for the last 45 years was the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), an independently operated non-profit organization, which is the most prominent provider of television programs to public television stations in the United States. PBS distributes, in addition to  Sesame Street, series such as NOVA, PBS NewsHour, Masterpiece, Nature, American Masters, Frontline, and Antiques Roadshow.

Sesame Street and Taxpayer Money

The sad thing about this announcement is that when Mitt Romney stated, back during the 2014 U.S. Presidential Election, he would defund Sesame Street, so many people rose up to their defense. Romney’s position was described as him wanting to “kill Big Bird.” Is this how Sesame Street repays that support?

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) receives about $450 Million from Congress each year., and roughly $280 Million of that goes to PBS and the local stations. Between 15 and 20 percent of the aggregate revenues of all public broadcasting stations have been funded from federal sources, principally through the CPB

Additionally, The Children’s Television Workshop (today called Sesame Workshop), received a combined grant of $8 Million ($51 million in 2015 dollars) from the Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the U.S. Federal Government to create and produce Sesame Street, which premiered in 1969.

B is for Big Business

Starting in 1978, the Children’s Television Workshop started licensing Sesame Street to toy companies and other manufacturers, publishing companies, and international sales. This was for the purpose of creating a stable source of funding.

In 2013, the non-profit had earned about $130 Million from licensing revenue, royalties, and foundation and government support.

It is not clear how much HBO is paying for Sesame Street, because the terms have not been disclosed. However, the deal gives HBO exclusive broadcast rights for the first 9 months after initial airing, and licencing to 150 past episodes. We should be able to figure out how much the deal was work on their next PF990.

Was Mitt Right?

I have a great love for both Sesame Street and PBS. I was born in 1970, grew up watching shows like Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. My three oldest children grew up watching children’s programs on PBS. This deal, to me, is a bit heartbreaking.

I looked at the Sesame Workshop’s 2014 PF990. Just because this is a non-profit, doesn’t mean people are not making money.

  • Sesame Workshop received $130 Million in 2013, and $104 Million in 2014, in contributions and grants, program service revenue, investment income, and other revenue.
  • There were 149 employees making over $100,000 per year, but only 37 were reported on the form as “key employees”.
  • Joseph Mazzarino was paid almost $875,000. He does a number of characters on the Sesame Street, including Murray, Stinky the Stinkweed, the Two-Headed Monster, Papa Bear, and others.
  • Caroll Edwin Spinney, Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, is no longer being reported on Sesame Workshop’s “key employee” list, but was last reported to be making over $314,000 per year in 2010.

Previous production was 18 half-hour episodes per year, which we could probably presume represents roughly 4 months of work for performers. The HBO deal doubles the number of episodes, and probably, as a result, the salaries as well.

Does Sesame Workshop owe the people of the United States for having taken all that money over the years, both in tax dollars and contributions?

Is it time for PBS to go?

Aside from Sesame Workshop, we also need to talk about PBS. There was a time when PBS provided viewers television programs they could not find anywhere else. It wasn’t only the educational children’s programming. It was everything from Julia Child to Doctor Who. There were shows like Nova and This Old House.

Today, that kind of programming is no longer exclusive to PBS. Doctor Who, and the other British Television that was once exclusive to PBS, is now on BBC America. We also have a long list of cooking, travel, science, history, and home improvement channels.

I was once a PBS supporter, and my local PBS channel use to have fund drives 2-3 times a year. Neither my children, nor I watch much any more, It seems like they are asking for donations nonstop. Moreover, the fundraisers appear to have turned into little more than infomercials for a variety of life coaches, money management gurus, and dieting hacks.

We can also say that PBS being commercial free is no longer valid. Sure, programs may be provided without commercial interruptions, but can’t we say what is between shows are commercials? Why are commercials such a sin for PBS anyway?

Despite all the good PBS had once done, and all the good intentions that may still exist, should taxpayer funds still be going to the organization?

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This bums me out. Luckily I can watch old episodes of sesame street streaming. But to put it on HBO. I don’t get cable anymore. It’s more affordable using Netflix and Hulu plus for me.