Sesame Street has struck a deal with HBO. In exchange for enough increased funding to double its production run, Sesame Street will put all of its new episodes behind HBO’s paywall for the first nine months after they premiere. The funds from HBO will also finance a Sesame spin-off series, available on both PBS and HBO.
This is great news for Sesame Workshop, the company that produces Sesame Street, and for the millions of children who watch and learn from the show. It is also good financial news for PBS member stations in America, who, under the terms of the new deal, will no longer have to pay a fee to broadcast Sesame Street to their viewers.
But this is not an occasion to proclaim that the rest of PBS should follow suit and rely on public-private partnerships or outright privatization for vital funding. In a recent column for Time magazine, Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint advocated that all federal money for PBS be cut, citing the HBO deal as an exemplar, and comparing Big Bird to the dodo, which DeMint says deserved extinction because it could not adapt to free-market forces.
DeMint’s arguments are a variation on attacks against public broadcasting’s legitimacy that have been repeated for the last four decades, almost exclusively by the right wing. They are based on false assumptions about what public media are and how they really work.
The first false assumption is that all PBS shows can be as self-sufficient as Sesame Street, which in reality receives only 10 percent of its funding from the government. Of all the services PBS provides, children’s content is most easily parlayed into supplemental revenue streams. Licensing the production of toys and educational materials has long buoyed Sesame Street’s finances without compromising the show’s educational mission.
Children’s programming that is not as well-known as Sesame Street, and grown-up shows like the PBS NewsHour, Frontline, and Great Performances don’t have the same options for supplementary support. They are all central to PBS’s mission of making culture and reliable news universally accessible, but you could never sell enough coffee mugs, tote bags, DVDs, or digital downloads to make up the production costs. To keep such shows on the air (and often available for free online) the unavoidable financial reality is that government support is necessary.