Change Comes to Sesame Street

Published: November 1, 2023
Categories: Commentary, Feature

Well, you’re on ToughPigs, so you’ve probably heard the news: Sesame Workshop has announced that, after over 50 years, they’re fully abandoning Sesame Street’s signature “magazine format.” That’s right, for decades, Sesame Street has had so-called street stories that are interrupted by, or paired with, songs, sketches, cartoons, real-world footage of crayon factories, and the like. However, as announced on Monday in The Hollywood Reporter, all that is going away in Season 56. Instead, Sesame Street will have two 11-minute stories with a brief animated segment in between. It’s not unlike the structure Arthur had when I was a little girl, except of course those two 11-minute stories were animated and the middle segment was live action kids being boring, but you get the idea.

Needless to say, since ToughPigs is the Internet’s premiere site for adults who need to constantly over-analyze everything Sesame Workshop does, we here have had a lot of thoughts about this. In particular, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this announcement has in common with the Sesame of yore, as well as with the direction the show has been headed in. It’s a really interesting pitch, for reasons you might not even have considered. Here’s some things I’m thinking about:

1. Death of a Segment

So first of all, the sad part: no more segments. For years, the segments were the parts of Sesame Street we all remembered. Things like Ernie and Bert in their apartment, songs like “Monster in the Mirror,” celebrities hanging out with letters…ask anybody what they remember from Sesame Street and they’ll probably name a segment. Even segments without Muppets, ranging from Joe Raposo’s animal songs to animated characters like the Alligator King, really shaped what Sesame was. After all, these were the parts that were re-aired again and again, released on home video, and captured on soundtracks.

I’m sad to see segments go. But for what it’s worth, they’ve been gone for a while now. Since 2016, when Sesame switched from a 60-minute episode format to a 30-minute episode format, segments have been scarce. These days, after an 8-minute “street story,” we get a few quick live action clips ostensibly about letters, Cookie Monster’s Foodie Truck, and Elmo and Tango’s Mysterious Mysteries. So yeah, we lost these years ago. Which is bad, honestly! But given the choice between two stories and some flavorless footage of turtles underscored by a child saying “T is for turtles!,” I’ll take the thing that actually requires writing characters. We’re not actually losing more clever Waiter Grover sketches; we lost those years ago.

2. Things Are Always Changin’

We’ve seen some people respond to this announcement by claiming this is the first time Sesame Street has ever changed, especially with regards to the ratio of story to segments. That’s patently untrue and I just wanted to take a second to point that out.

In the early days of Sesame Street, the show was 60 minutes long. It had largely disconnected street scenes with frequent cuts to segments. In time, these street scenes became street stories, developing longer plots that were still interrupted by segments.

However, by the 2000s, this changed. First, the show would get longer segments that slotted into the show in more predictable ways. We’re talking about things like Elmo’s World, Journey to Ernie, and Monster Clubhouse. Eventually, the show restructured to have the street story proceed uninterrupted, with the segments following it at the end. This pattern continued when the show shortened to 30 minutes.

And that’s not even counting other changes the show has made, including the new set and characters added in the 1993 “Around the Corner” season, Murray Monster’s era as the show’s host, and the fact that once upon a time there wasn’t a character named Elmo.

So change has truly always been a part of Sesame, which means this isn’t inherently scary or blasphemous or whatever. It’s just interesting to note that this is the first time they’ve fully eliminated the segments, even if their role has been gradually being reduced for years now.

Also, I’m seeing some people fearing the whole show will be animated. That’s not what the article says! The show will have an animated component. You know, like it literally always did. The only difference is this animated segment will take place on Sesame Street, whereas the animations used to take place in places like a Capital I High in the Sky or Abby’s Flying Fairy School.

3. The Write Stuff

What’s interesting about the Sesame representative’s statements in this Hollywood Reporter article is that, for the first time in a long time, the focus has shifted to the show’s longform writing.

As a longtime ToughPigs writer, I’m used to reading these kinds of press releases. Usually, Sesame is promoting a new initiative focused on curriculum or a new diverse character. These are both good things, don’t get me wrong! But now, for the first time I can remember, the discussion is about things like “longer segments” that let them explore “more ‘dynamic’ and ‘sophisticated’ stories.” Kay Wilson Stallings of Sesame Workshop then adds that they’re trying to weave in humor and character bits. When discussing the new animated interstitial, titled Tales From 123, Wilson Stallings notes that she’s hoping this segment is funny and shows off who the Sesame characters are at their cores.
Man. It was only on October 6 of this year that ToughPigs’ own J. D. Hansel wrote about how Sesame wasn’t so concerned with humor anymore, and now the tables have seemingly turned.

Obviously, we’re still dealing with Sesame Street here. I’m not expecting these “sophisticated” stories to be The Matrix or this humor to be 70s Saturday Night Live. The stories will be about friendship and going to school and eating cookies. But I’m still intrigued that this is the direction we’re heading. After years of reading about things like “the new Irish character Niamh who loves soccer” or “that kids need to learn about dogs,” it’s interesting to get right down to the core of what makes a TV show a TV show. That gives me hope.

4. There is No Season 56

So why is Sesame doing this? Well, here’s the thing this article kind of mentions, but only vaguely and towards the end: we don’t know what’s going on with Season 56. 

I mean, we do know that it won’t have segments but will have deeper writing and more jokes. You just read that. 

But what we don’t know is…will Season 56 exist? 

You see, as we all discussed back in 2015, Sesame Street wasn’t able to get enough funding from PBS any longer, and so they made a deal with Warner Brothers to move the street to HBO. But Sesame wasn’t bought by Warner. It’s still an independently-owned organization, just one that has a deal to put all content on HBO (and then have a lot of that content unceremoniously removed but that’s another story). Warner foots the bill, and Sesame gets to make Cookie Monster eat lasagna or whatever he does.

However, that was a five-year deal. Then, they made another five-year deal when Sesame moved to HBO Max. So, if you do the math, you’ll realize that after Season 55 (which will premiere in 2024), Sesame Street is once again without a sponsor. That’s right, this show is now brought to you by the letter X.

Steve Youngwood, Sesame Workshop’s CEO, says “The fact that [this announcement] aligns with where we go after the current Warner deal is over, it just happens to be where the timing is.” Now listen, I might love Baby Natasha, but unlike her, I wasn’t born yesterday. This feels awfully suspicious to me. 

Sesame’s back on the market again. Maybe Warner will buy it again! Maybe it’ll be Apple! Maybe it’ll be me, and I can finally bring back Chicago the Lion. But no matter what, Sesame has to do whatever they can to look appealing again. And that means focusing on what they used to do better than anyone else: well-developed characters and thoughtful writing. It’s interesting how we’ve ended up back here.

5. And, In The End…

Look, Sesame Street still isn’t for me. I’m a 32 year old woman. I pay taxes and majored in US history and like watching horror movies in my spare time. This is not a show for my demographic. Yes, I want to enjoy watching Sesame Street again, like I did not just as a little girl, but also as a teenager and a young adult. But I’m not where Sesame’s focus is. I get that.

But also, I’m glad that they also have realized it’s time for a change. And most of all, as sad as I am about losing Guy Smiley game shows and videos about peanut butter, I’m just happy someone is saying that writing is the most important thing.

That’s something I think we can all agree on.

By Becca Petunia

Click here to bring back Chicago the Lion on the ToughPigs forum!

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