I’ll be the first to admit that maybe we here at ToughPigs have been a little hard on Sesame Street lately, but that’s only because we love it so darn much. We want it to be the best it can be. We want it to be entertaining as well as educational and make good choices with its licensing. (And for some decently themed salads, but that’s not the most important thing right now.) And most importantly, we want Sesame Workshop to live up to its mission of making kids stronger, smarter, and kinder. But last week, Sesame announced a new partnership that didn’t feel strong, smart, or kind.
As of the writing of this article, both Elmo and Cookie Monster are now on Cameo in animated form, providing short customized videos for $25 each. At face value, it doesn’t seem that offensive. Overpriced, maybe, but hey, who am I to tell people how to spend their money? But I wondered how this would all work. Wouldn’t it be cool if Ryan Dillon and David Rudman were going to go into the recording booth to provide customized and unique Cameos for every Sesame fan? At that rate, these videos would probably be sold out by the end of the day. But as it turns out, Dillon and Rudman had a little helper, one that’s been the focus of a lot of discussions lately. That’s right, today’s rant is brought to you by the letters “A” and “I.”
Earlier this year, at the onset of the WGA strike that rocked the film and television industry for several months, I wrote an editorial that discussed the effect artificial intelligence would have for writers, noting that writers are not disposable. Well, if the writers are vital, then the performers are just as essential, especially for a franchise like Sesame Street. The creative worlds of Jim Henson are known for their consistency in characters; you can’t just hand someone the Grover puppet and expect the performance to sound or act the same way Eric Jacobson does. It may not sound like another Muppet performer is taking over these characters, and in a physical sense, they’re not. It’s Dillon and Rudman’s voices, all right, but they don’t have any control over how the character behaves here because the AI technology is simply parroting sounds these characters have made without the proper context. It’s a manufactured performance. In taking away the puppeteer, you’ve stripped Elmo and Cookie Monster of their souls. And for an entity so beloved and so respected as Sesame Street, that should be a major red flag. The kids may not know the difference, but the adults paying for these darn well should.
Beyond this Cameo collaboration, what’s to stop Sesame from expanding their AI usage? The characters could say anything the programmers want, without input from the creative talent that made them so desirable in the first place. Now luckily, the SAG-AFTRA strike was resolved weeks ago, with significant protections for actors in the matter of AI, so the show itself is safe for now. But since Cameo (and similarly non-televised productions) is considered “new media,” those protections don’t necessarily apply. And with their material going increasingly online, AI could be utilized in a major way. For animated pieces (which they seem to be doing more and more of), they could save a whole lot of money and just program the voices with AI. AI doesn’t need schedules or breaks or even a paycheck. Sounds like a cushy deal, doesn’t it? All you need to give up is what makes Big Bird or Bert and Ernie so special.
And that’s part of what drives me more batty than Count von Count’s castle. Cameo’s since changed the wording (twice already, as shown throughout this piece) to “automation based on live recordings” most likely to hide the increasingly negative connotation surrounding artificial intelligence, especially as it refers to replacing living, breathing workers. Shouldn’t that have been a warning sign that this was a bad idea? They’re ripping the character out of the characters and showing incredible disrespect to the performers, and for what? A forty-five second video where Cookie Monster says what letter your name starts in a stilted, almost “uncanny valley” sort of way? This doesn’t feel consistent with Sesame Workshop’s mission at all.
Much like the NFTs they began selling back in March, this venture is another example of the Sesame Street brand being tied to a controversial, not-entirely-ethical tech-based enterprise that offers nothing of educational or social value. But unlike NFTs, where the consumer’s only out the money they spend on worthless digital doodads, AI threatens the livelihood of the puppeteers, reducing their work to pre-recorded soundbites and causing them to worry about becoming completely obsolete.
We understand the need for Sesame Workshop to keep on bringing in money. With no certain future with Warner Bros, they’re likely scrambling to keep the cookie bills paid and from having to pawn off their paper clip collections. But when we see Sesame embrace partnerships like the one with Cameo, which sacrifices the integrity of the performers and the characters to embrace a controversial technology and make a quick $25, we have to assume there are better ways to keep the lights on. Something that supports the puppeteers and the art form while also giving the characters the space to shine. Something that can embrace fandom while also educating kids or expanding outreach programs. It is possible for Sesame Workshop to earn money, respect their own legacy, and keep to their mission statement, but they can’t do all three with AI.
So, what could they be doing instead? We’re still waiting for news about Sesame Street‘s next distribution deal, and perhaps it will be as good or better than what they’ve had over the past decade with Warner. There must be plenty of untapped opportunities for merchandising deals, digital offerings, and unique experiences that support the mission without sacrificing what has kept Sesame Street special for over five decades. There’s no one solution, but I can tell you this: if you want to make sure that these people that make Elmo and Cookie Monster so iconic stay with you, it’s time to make this a very brief Cameo.
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by Matthew Soberman – Matthew@ToughPigs.com