Sesame Street: Brought to you by the letters H-B-O

If you are literate enough to be reading this sentence, chances are Sesame Street had something to do with it. You probably have some formative memories that were brought to you by various letters of the alphabet. Mine was sponsored by the letter U: It’s the very early ’90s and, with the TV screen still black, a piano lick opens up a Motown tune and some older dude rushes onscreen, clearly on the run. I can’t identify him because I’m four. I also don’t know what Motown is yet. The man looks around, then at the camera, and begins singing: “I don’t like you, but I love you/Seems like I’m always thinking of you.”

The tune is “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” and the dude is Smokey Robinson, and now, shimmying onscreen from stage right, is a massive, red, foam “U” with heavy-lashed, googly crossed eyes and big, puckery lips down at the center of her bend. By the end of the first verse, U begins, well … groping Smokey Robinson. He tries shoving off her tendrils while singing reworked lyrics like, “Being grabbed by a letter is unappealing,” and, “I want to flee now/I can’t get free now.” U clings to Smokey’s leg. She suffocates his head. At the interlude she hooks herself under each of his arms, lifts him off the ground, and carries him away as he kicks helplessly at the air. It is at this point that I run out of the room screaming.

I watched Sesame Street daily, and every so often this sketch would re-play, and I’d always flee. It was terrifying, yes, but more than that, it was deeply discomforting on a level I was unable to interrogate. Apparently this was a common reaction. Sesame Street put the clip on YouTube in 2010, and the comments section has come to function as something of a support group for those who were traumatized by it.

theone2225: this video use to creep me out as a kid
megan white: I hated this one too! it scared the bijeebers out of me! so creepy!
elijoker: Yes! This made me so uncomfortable as a kid.
Jacob Pashia: Thank god I’m not alone in being creeped out by this. I still hear the song and it makes me uncomfortable.
Lurkerbunny: Man, no wonder I grew up all sexually messed up, after seeing a grown man molested by an alphabet letter.
David Kenniston: This video used to TERRIFY me.

Point is, the mind is impressed upon through repetition. When it was announced in mid-August that The Sesame Street Workshop had struck a deal with HBO, there was outrage of all kinds and sorts. Some of it was about class and gentrification. Some of it was about the privatization of public media. Just about all of it was well-intentioned, and just about all of it was wrong.

The rundown: There’s going to be a nine-month window in which fancy-shmancy HBO will get to air new episodes of Sesame Street exclusively, before humble PBS can then broadcast the new episodes to children of the less financially fortunate and those who eschew cable for whatever reason. Meanwhile, PBS will fill that window by re-editing older content, and it is important to note that this is not only a totally satisfactory arrangement, but, in fact, a good one.

But don’t just take my word for it! “On the surface it sounds like a bad thing, but when you really look at it, they’re kind of saving it,” James Mims of Public Access TV told me when we talked about the channel switch-a-roo. “HBO isn’t taking over production or anything like that, which from what I’ve heard is almost like a blessing for the Sesame Street Workshop because they were really struggling for funds. To have someone like HBO step up and say, ‘We’re going to make sure this entity continues in the way it’s been,’ I think that’s really cool,” Mims continued, adding: “For little kids, I don’t think that matters at all. They can watch episodes that are ten, twenty, thirty years old and it’s just the same to them.”

Mims is right. To a child, all content is new. The Smokey Robinson segment originally aired in the mid-’80s, but it had no less an impact on me, nor the people who wrote, “Wow, this traumatizes me as a child,” and, “I still remember the deeply distressed feeling I got when I saw this as a kid. I didn’t know what was happening to that man but I wanted it to stop.” And, like the feelings inspired by the molesting U of yore, that which is repeated is reinforced.

In fact, Sesame Street airs daily, yet the Workshop only produces 3½ weeks’ worth of new programming every year. For the rest of the year, we’re already looking at reruns.

By now, every reaction to the deal has been reacted and every think piece has been thought. Here is where we have landed: It’s a shame that there’s now a clear class divide in access to a show that was founded to reach poor youth, yet the alternative, it seems, is that we lose the show altogether. Sesame Street runs at a loss and PBS only funds about 10 percent of operating costs. We can complain about the move all we want, but avoiding it was made impossible by the lack of contributions from Viewers Like You. HBO has a reputation for allowing its showrunners to fulfill their job titles to the fullest—in fact, the Golden Age of Television in which we are currently existing is primarily the result of HBO’s business model, which relies on the strength of programming instead of the satisfaction of ad buyers—and has demonstrated itself smart enough to stay away from meddling in the creative operations of the Sesame Street Workshop. HBO can play the hero by keeping its hands on the purse and out of the cavities of puppets.

I was at work when the HBO deal was revealed, and it was the big story on the internet for a whopping five hours. People were displaying lots of visceral moralism there between lunch and second coffee. Instead of considering whether this deal is Good or Bad, we should focus on why the fuck none of the many people who demonstrated such passionate rhetoric three weeks ago seem to care enough to still be discussing the deal today. This question feels much more immediate than who gets to watch Sesame Street first.

I’d like to submit a theory. I don’t think that we care nearly as much as our immediate reactions suggested. Or rather, we care just fine, but we don’t know what to do with that. And this diagnosis is applicable not just to our response to the Sesame Street-HBO partnership, but to the digestive process of American culture in general.

It’s worth considering for a moment the content model of new media. Online news platforms have a slate of writers who are each responsible for publishing at least twice daily. In part this is to ensure that content is always up-to-date, but it’s also a response to America’s collective Bored-At-Work syndrome. If the computer-chained workforce is going to be bored a dozen times during business hours, that’s a dozen opportunities for clicks. In order to get those eyes on your site during each instance of boredom, you’re going to require fresh content each time. The ultimate goal here, of course, is to build an addictive product, to the point that consumers are heading to your site out of force of habit, as a reflexive tic.

What results is an onslaught of information that is impossible to digest. The greatest piece of new media performance art, @Horse_ebooks, famously observed, “Everything happens so much.” That is a proper summation of the space the account was operating in. It’s a paralyzing amount of content that we subject ourselves to, and as sympathetic humans it is our nature to react. But what can we really do when we are stuck at a computers all day, consuming and processing content without an outlet for construction and meaning-making?

The most immediate way to display our own care is to make passionate Internet commentary. It’s a necessarily self-involved act; it’s not that we are attempting to engage with others, but to exercise our own static human compassion. Outrage is validating, especially when it is the only option. So the rhetoric gets dialed up and we’re all yelling, but not at each other, and it’s hardly ever even about something we care that much about. The point of modern digital outrage is not to show others how much we care about a particular something, but to show ourselves that we can still care about anything. Concern is our antidote to boredom.

We’ve known for years that Sesame Street runs at a loss, and we’ve known for even longer that it is supported in part by public donations. If we didn’t care enough to be propping up Sesame Street this time last year, we don’t get to bemoan the HBO deal now. It’s a genuine expression of a false sense of compassion.

Max Rubin claims to be an active memeber of the community. This article claims to have appeared in Little Village issue 184.

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