FAQ About the HBO Max/Sesame Workshop Situation

Published: August 22, 2022
Categories: Commentary, Feature

Oof, what a week.

The Muppetverse was already abuzz thanks to the news that HBO Max would be removing a bunch of Sesame Street content. But the real surprise came when we all woke up early last Friday, opened our HBO Max accounts for our daily Sesame Street episode to watch over breakfast, and noticed that hundreds of episodes were nowhere to be found.

In just the last few days, reactions have been all over the board. Everyone (aside from whoever at HBO is making these decisions) is in agreement that this is super upsetting. We’re as grouchy as Oscar, as frustrated as a starving Cookie Monster, as fuming as that meme where Bert’s got that scrunchy angry face.

But this is also a good opportunity to clear a few things up. With a lot of big feelings and loud voices on social media, it’s also a time when misinformation is at its most potent. And while we should definitely be worried for the larger implications of the recent news, we should also make sure we’re not panicking over stuff that’s simply not true. (Frankly, we have more than enough to panic over as it is.)

Let’s get this easy one out of the way: HBO does not own Sesame Street, and they don’t have the power to “cancel” the show. HBO Max is currently Sesame Street‘s distributor, and they have first rights to air any new content on the streaming service. And even though HBO is a paid subscription service, it doesn’t mean that the show is only available to families with the means to pay for it. PBS still gets the new episodes (without needing to pay, which is a boon to the oft-struggling Corporation for Public Broadcasting), and they air the show for free to anyone with a television. Sure, they get the new episodes nine months after they originally aired on HBO, but do kids really know the difference, or are we just looking for things to complain about?

HBO Max still has several hundred episodes available to watch. That includes almost every episode from season 39 through 52. That’s not nothing! If you’re into the more recent content Sesame Workshop puts out, then you’re gonna be fine.

Although HBO can’t “cancel” Sesame Street, they can choose to stop investing in the show. Once their contract with Sesame Workshop is up, they will have the option to pull their funding and force Sesame to seek out new distribution partners. That would potentially set off a few lines of dominoes, so keep reading to see what disasters it might set off.

HBO Max removed the bulk of their classic Sesame Street content. This is the big one. Where they previously had over 250 classic (“classic” meaning anything from the first 38 seasons of the show) episodes available, only 29 episodes remain. Let’s do some math: They started out with about 1/16th of the classic series of over 4,000 episodes. Now they’re boasting about 1/10th of that number, and these fractions are getting too small for me to bother calculating.

HBO Max was the only place where we could ever view these episodes. A lot of people (ourselves included) are complaining that HBO is removing Sesame Street episodes, but we forget that just a few years ago, none of these episodes were available to us anyhow. Sure, it doesn’t help remove the sting of being given a gift only to have it taken away again, but the magic of streaming networks is that they have the ability to provide content without the added expense of manufacturing physical media. So while it was always a pipe dream to hope for huge DVD collections of the show, HBO offered us hope that most (if not all?) of the series could someday be available for us to view. So while it’s awful that the episodes are gone, it’s important to remember that no one promised that these classics would be given to us in the first place, and we are technically not entitled to them (despite the fact that we want them so very, very much).

The removed episodes were not for today’s kids, who still have access to the Sesame Street episodes that cater to their needs. It’s important to remember that the classic episodes were re-released for us – the fans – and not for current preschoolers (though they can certainly watch and enjoy them if they so choose!). The needs of children change from year-to-year, and the current seasons reflect the research that goes into educating the kids of 2022. The classic episodes are mainly rooted in nostalgia, and their removal is hurtful to lots of grownups, but most kids would still benefit most from the episodes that remain.

This is bad news for fans of classic Sesame Street. While we don’t yet know the actual reason why the episodes were removed from HBO Max, we certainly have plenty of speculation. It seems likely that this was a financial decision, which indicates that the availability of nostalgia-based Sesame Street episodes isn’t profitable. Does this mean that we’ll never see a significant number of classic episodes available to stream ever again? If the HBO juggernaut can’t see the value in it, then what chance would any other streaming network have? Will these episodes return to the vault to never again see the light of day?

This may be bad news for the future of Sesame Street. If it’s true that the new regime behind HBO Max wants to de-prioritize their investment in Sesame Workshop, then this may signal the end of their partnership. Or, equally possible, a continued partnership under a lower price point. With either of these scenarios, Sesame Workshop stands to lose a lot of funding, which would mean fewer productions, a lower production value, and more layoffs for the non-profit. That’s not to mention the affect it could have on their outreach initiatives, including their international efforts and “Sesame Street in Communities” programs. I’ve seen folks on social media suggest that they return to PBS, but if that was even an option, it would mean less funding than what HBO previously provided.

Sesame Street is still streaming on YouTube… technically. Recently in response to the HBO Max story, Sesame Workshop tweeted that their episodes are still available to watch for free on YouTube, and it’s true – there’s a swath of episodes right there on your browser. But the episodes are all relatively recent, and not reflective of the 200 classic episodes that are now missing. Further, if you keep digging on YouTube, you will find classic episodes, but they’re all uploaded by fans and not through official means. And hey, it’s great that some of this stuff is there if you want to see it, but sad that it can’t be provided by the folks who made it (or the folks who distribute it).

It seems to us that nobody wants to invest in Sesame Street‘s history. Sesame Workshop – understandably – has a priority to focus on their current productions and partnerships, which is why we don’t see them promote the old stuff very often. HBO Max had the opportunity to find new audiences and foster our own existing fandom to bring people back to the classic Sesame Street episodes, but they chose to cut and run instead. So who is left to support and celebrate the history of the show we all love so much? It’s up to us – the fans – to keep classic Sesame alive. The bloggers, the YouTubers, the Wiki editors, the Twitter community, and even the folks who make Tik Toks that I feel too out-of-touch to understand.

Streaming networks come and go. But the fans will always be here to make sure that Sesame‘s early years won’t be forgotten, and that it’s celebrated for the cultural phenomenon we all know it to be.

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by Joe Hennes – Joe@ToughPigs.com

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