How do you know your product has a passionate group of customers? One sign is when those customers squawk about a big change, even when that change is great news for the long-term outlook of your organization.
For the makers of Sesame Street, the squawking occurred yesterday, when the nonprofit group behind the 46-year-old children's program announced it had reached a five-year agreement to air new episodes exclusively on HBO, beginning in September. After nine months on HBO, the shows will be available for free on PBS.
The lamentations took many forms, but the thrust was this: Sesame Street should be on a free TV channel like PBS, as it has always been, rather than a channel you have to pay for, like HBO. And, in case you hadn't noticed, there's a lot of R-rated material on HBO.
"In order to watch original episodes of the most iconic children's program in television history, parents are now forced to fork over about $180 per year and subscribe to the most sexually explicit, most graphically violent television network in America. I can't imagine a greater juxtaposition in television than this," is what Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, said to the New York Times.
Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health, expressed concern in the Times that the makers of Sesame Street would face pressure to create content that was more commercial--and less educational. He also worried that the move would start a trend of children's shows migrating to more commercial homes.
Your Brand's Perception and Reality
What's fascinating about all of this is what it reveals about the public perception of three brands: Sesame Street, PBS, and HBO. In all three cases, a lack of nuance is coming to the fore.
Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit behind the program, lost $11 million last year. Its revenues were $104 million, down nearly 14 percent from 2013. Even if you are a nonprofit, even if you have an iconic and immortal brand, those numbers are not going to work in the long haul.
"In order to fund our nonprofit mission with a sustainable business model, Sesame Workshop must recognize these changes and adapt to the times," Joan Ganz Cooney, who co-created the show in the late 1960s, tells the Times.
Here's what else is changing with the times: television. The facile binary behind so many reactions to the Sesame Street news--PBS is free and democratic, HBO is pricey and for elites--is just not true anymore.
Yes, PBS is still a free channel. But to watch it is to be bombarded by fundraising requests and lengthy tributes to corporate "sponsors" which would be ads on any other channel. And on any given night on PBS, you'll see the same celebrities and artists who are making the rounds on commercial television, because they have a movie or a book or a record to sell.
Yes, HBO is still pricey. But if you don't know how to watch it for free, then you probably don't know anyone under the age of 40. What's more, the traditional notion of paying for television via a monthly cable bill--or watching it based on a programming calendar--is vanishing.
For a big football game, or even a big episode of Game of Thrones, the desire to watch television in real time is still strong.
But for episodes of Sesame Street? Those can usually wait until the kids or parents are ready to sit down. To spend time with any parent of young children is to see that both parents and kids watch their favorite shows whenever and wherever they want to. Usually they stream them for free on their phones or tablets, thanks to shared passwords or the droves of free content on YouTube and elsewhere. Most of us have observed this anecdotally, and the numbers back it up: The Times reports that two-thirds of children now first watch Sesame Street in an on-demand format, rather than at its regularly scheduled time and place.
The point is, Sesame Street content is ubiquitous. An announcement about the channel on which new episodes will initially air will not prevent any child or parent from basking in its brilliance. What's more, the show will still regularly air on PBS. That the episodes will be nine months old at that point is immaterial. No four-year-old is going to sit there and be less entertained or enriched because the content already aired on HBO.
Besides, there was a time when Sesame Street's content was not as squeaky clean as it is today. But it was no less amusing or educational. For example, one of the best--and most entrepreneurial--Sesame Street skits of all time came out in 1971. In the skit, a wheeling-and-dealing muppet who is no longer with us, Lefty the Letter Salesman, tries to pitch Ernie on the value of the letter O. His pitch goes like this: Ernie, for just a nickel, I will sell you a vowel so versatile in its sound, so perfectly round in its construction, you'd be a fool to resist.
Critics may lament that if you add H and B to the "O," the cost will be far more than a nickel. In reality, the cost will still be F-R-E-E, if you watch the exact same "new" episode on PBS, nine months later. Most parents have already waited nine months for something far more singular to occur.