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Why the 'Sesame Street' Move to HBO Feels Like a Betrayal

Photograph by PBS

When I read that the 45-year-running kids' show "Sesame Street" would be moving its next five seasons—35 episodes per season— to HBO, I scanned for the telltale logo of the satire news site, "The Onion," but found it to be an actual fact.

I admit that next I went into knee-jerk reaction mode. Any change of a childhood institution feels like a betrayal, like a public knocking down of a sacred part of one's memory (case in point, raised on early '70s "Sesame Street," I never could get behind that interloper Elmo). I didn't just grow up on the show, I grew up with it—I'm 41 this month, just a few years younger than the show itself.

RELATED: Is 'Sesame Street' as Good for Kids as Preschool?

If there's anything that says gentle wholesome TV shows you want your kids to watch, it's PBS, the same network that brought you "Masterpiece Theater" and "Super Why," a program with a book-reading superhero. HBO, on the other hand, is synonymous with bloody medieval dramas and no holds barred sexual content.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm a huge fan of HBO's sophisticated programming (though we don't have it in my home so I have to visit a friend's house to watch it) and its edgy and cinematic approach to what used to be canned TV. But it's just not where I want to go to find perhaps the most beloved children's show in the history of television. I mean, would "Sesame Street" then just become a gateway to darker, harder shows by the age of 5?

But I couldn't believe the good people of "Sesame Street," a non-profit organization called Sesame Workshop, would hand themselves over to HBO only to see Big Bird start using potty language or Cookie Monster doing cameos on "True Detective."

I can guarantee that neither myself, nor any of my friends, growing up would have been able to watch Sesame Street if it were on a pay-per-view channel.

What it comes down to, as it always does, is money. Through the early 2000s, "Sesame Street" had solid sales of DVDs. And then came the streaming revolution with Netflix and HBO Go, and the advent of a tablet or a phone in nearly every child's hand, and the market dropped out from beneath the floor of "Sesame Street's" business. HBO is offering rescue, bailout, an opportunity to keep alive this beloved program that was literally the only show I was allowed to watch before the age of 10. But I just can't help feeling like my neighborhood Mom and Pop grocery store has been taken over by Walmart.

What's the big deal, you might ask. Who cares if HBO takes over? I'll tell you what: There's very little actual television programming that qualifies as "educational" any more for kids. NPR recently did a story on the research linking Sesame Street to helping kids become ready for school. There are also very few shows in which the actors actually look like real people—not botoxed, glammed up versions of themselves.

I recall the first time we started watching "Spongebob Squarepants" when my son turned 4, after his usual fare of the mostly plotless, musical "Backyardigans" and the slow-moving, morals-based "Wow Wow Wubbzy." I felt like we'd been dropped from a TV version of a country road right onto a four-lane highway at 65 miles an hour.

There's also a much more significant concern that this will limit the access of "Sesame Street" to only those kids whose families can afford HBO. I can guarantee that neither myself, nor any of my friends, growing up would have been able to watch Sesame Street if it were on a pay-per-view channel.

As writer Jessica Winter says in her Slate article on the topic, "In short, 'Sesame Street' was founded to help low-income kids keep up with their more affluent peers. That is literally why it exists. It succeeded beyond anyone's expectations. And now it is becoming the property of a premium cable network, so that a program launched to help poor kids keep up with rich kids is now being paywalled so that rich kids can watch it before poor kids can." She's referring to the fact that HBO will allow the new seasons to air on PBS, and it won't be until 9 months after their first run.

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I'm hopeful that HBO will keep all that we love about "Sesame Street" fresh and won't take too many liberties, but fears abound among parents and educators (myself included) that this is the beginning of the end of the wholesome, non-commercial appeal that has made "Sesame Street" what it has been.

As far as I'm concerned, "Sesame Street" is an institution that needs no improvement.

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