Monday, August 17, 2015

The importance of owning Ernie

Salon's Arthur Chu  has some thoughts on the new normal regarding Sesame Street, whereby HBO effectively owns the show and shows first run episodes that will rerun in nine months' time. Is this something, by the way, that Jim Henson would have accepted were he still with us? Maybe if his back were really against the wall, but I can't imagine him being happy about it. Chu provides some background on how this came to be.
The basis of Ganz Cooney’s famous “little dinner party” where a small group of TV executives and developmental psychologists came up with the idea for “Sesame Street” was a simple formula–poor kids watch more TV than rich kids, thanks to poor kids having busy parents and being more likely to be “raised by TV.” Poor kids get less education than rich kids. Make TV that’s educational–good TV that’s educational, TV that was “addictive” in the way successful shows are rather than the crappy low-budget afterthought TV that most children’s programming was back then–and you might level the socioeconomic playing field.

The idea has its obvious flaws, which were criticized at the time. (Doesn’t all of this just train kids to watch more TV? Doesn’t the constant need to entertain necessarily distort your message? Neil Postman, etc.) But the mission is undeniably noble and shockingly radical even for today
Maybe more radical for today. So what happened? A couple of things, I think. One is that public television is part of a government reachout that's been so demonized by the right that even people who agree with its mission have started to see it as doomed. Also the intellectual class - at least the most accepted part of it - has a serious case of shiny object syndrome when it comes to technology. Consider the seriously-made argument that taxi companies represent a monopoly but ride-apps don't even though the latter are represented by only two companies nationwide. Anyway, in 1969 TV was still a relatively recent technological development. The big changeover to color was only three years in the past. Yet people were sufficiently critical of it to recognize that it wasn't going to provide a cultural good all by itself, that this might take some effort.


susan said...

While I don't see it as completely negative that HBO will release the shows to broadcast television nearly a year later, what does bother me is the fact that HBO is a money-making venture. It's easy to imagine the network making big changes to the Sesame Street ideal of educational programming for poor children. I really hate the idea of kids, any kids, watching a lot of the trash on youtube, but I'm afraid my dismay on that count is already too late.

Ben said...

A lot of YouTube is so magically content-free that it does seem bad - or if you're in a certain position, very good - to have kids raised by it. Parents beware, certainly.

While I wouldn't deny that some people at HBO care about kids and education, you're right. Once you introduce that kind of corporate sponsorship things get warped.