LOS ANGELES – If there were ever a time for Oscar the Grouch to start dealing crack out of his trash bin, this is it.
The move of “Sesame Street” from PBS to HBO, a bombshell dropped last August, may have viewers worried that the series will abandon its Everything-Is-A-OK spirit to match the pay-cable channel’s grittier image.
Rest easy. In the 46th season’s first two episodes, premiering Saturday morning, the cameras sneak into the bedroom only to pick up sleeping tips from Elmo, Cookie Monster investigates the case of the missing ginger snap and the letter of the day is — spoiler alert! — “B.”
In other words, a visit to the neighborhood remains as family-friendly as high tea with the Count.
“Everyone is still coming to work with the goal to entertain and educate,” said puppeteer Eric Jacobson, as a limp Bert covered his right arm, taking a power nap between posing for selfies at a cocktail party last week with giddy fans like Kerry Washington and Bobby Cannavale.
Drinks may not have been flowing if HBO hadn’t taken over the lease. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Sesame Street” lost $11 million in 2014, a significant number for a series with an annual budget of $40 million.
“Without this commitment from HBO, we would not have a sustainable funding model that would allow for the continued production of the show,” Sesame Workshop CEO Jeff Dunn told the trade magazine.
The five-year contract gives the show security, as well as some nice caveats. Episodes will debut simultaneously on HBO Latino with dialogue dubbed in Spanish. The order calls for 35 half-hour episodes a season, which may seem like a downgrade from PBS’ slate of 18 one-hour episodes. But the show has traditionally relied on recycled bits to fill time. Under HBO, each installment will consist of 100 percent fresh material.
The deal also calls for a potential spinoff. Episodes will continue to air on PBS Kids nine months after they originally appear on cable.
For HBO, it’s an opportunity to broaden its image and reach out to Mom and Dad who, when not binge-watching “Game of Thrones,” still see “Sesame” as TV’s most reliable babysitter. The acquisition also helps the pay-cable giant keep pace with Netflix and Amazon, streaming services that are investing heavily in children’s programming.
Despite all of its Emmy success, HBO has never been represented in the category of outstanding children’s series. “Sesame” has 29 Emmys, by far the most of any show in its genre.
“I don’t think we’re trying to make a statement so much as we’re all about the best kinds of storytelling we can find,” said HBO CEO Richard Plepler. “The brand of the Sesame Workshop stands for excellence and quality, and I like to think we stand for the same things. It’s very organic.”
Sleeker set, fresher guests
Change is nothing new to the “Sesame Street” landscape, although past tinkering has often been more about responding to political correctness and market research, rather than polishing gold-star television.
In the late ’80s, Cookie Monster waged a PR campaign to insist that his diet also includes eggplant and oranges. Mr. Snuffleupagus came out of hiding so Big Bird wouldn’t be accused of being a Big Liar. Elmo, a likable enough but grating kid, began to steal stage time from more charismatic, complex characters, most notably vaudevillian throwback Grover.
The latest alterations aren’t nearly so annoying. A new, sleeker set reflects the Starbucks-ization of even the most urban ’hoods. Contemporary stars offer relief to both older parents (Gwen Stefani!) and younger ones (Nick Jonas!!). New cast member Suki Lopez helps represent the growing Hispanic audience.
“I love being part of something with so much history and so much impact,” said Lopez, a Cuban-American who plays Nina, a young woman doing double duty at the bike shop and coin laundry. “It’s not trying to be above anything. It’s not fancy cars. It’s not pyrotechnics. It’s just people and puppets.”
That time-tested philosophy may remain intact at HBO, but at least one “Sesame” resident is still getting used to the new address.
“Well, thank you,” said Ernie, sailing past the open bar at the bustling party after being congratulated on the move to HBO. “I’m still learning how to spell it.”