Ever since news broke about Sesame Street’s upcoming move from public television to HBO, critics of the shift have mourned the decline in public funding for the arts, and claimed that privatizing a program explicitly created for poor children exemplifies our nation’s growing economic and educational divides. Parents and educators fear the content of Sesame Street will become more commercial and less wholesome, particularly in light of the violent and strongly sexualized content of much of HBO’s other programming. Yet children’s media has been shaped by market forces since the 1820s, and a longer historical view of the commercial relationships between American families and the private sector suggests that now may be an opportune time to push Sesame Workshop and HBO to reinvigorate Sesame Street’s original commitment to diverse and sensitive programming.
Media coverage that has incorporated historical context into this story has focused primarily on the late 1960s, the period when Sesame Street was created. Yet that historical moment was an anomaly, a blip of public funding for children’s educational programming set against nearly two centuries of private development of educational and entertainment products for American children. For most of that long period, parents have been the primary purchasers of these products, and that role has given them substantial influence over the content consumed by young readers and viewers.
The domestic industry of marketing to American children began through the work of evangelical organizations such as the American Sunday School Union and the American Tract Society during the 1820s, but by the end of that decade, for-profit businesses also had begun offering books, magazines, and toys for young audiences. Both types of producers understood the commercial and educational influence they could achieve by appealing directly to children; as one 1824 commenter noted, “Let the Youth’s Magazine be called his own paper, and how will the juvenile reader clasp it to his bosom in ecstacy [sic] as he takes it from the Post-Office.” They also soon discovered the power that adult purchasers could exert over these products, particularly when the makers relied upon subscriptions to sustain their business. Perhaps the most notable example of this pattern occurred in 1833, when the popular and widely acclaimed children’s periodical the Juvenile Miscellany began to advocate for the abolition of slavery. Its circulation quickly plummeted, and within a year the publishers were forced to fire their celebrated editor Lydia Maria Child in a futile attempt to save the magazine.
As children became more integrated into the nation’s rapidly growing consumer cultures during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the dynamic of this relationship changed. Young people who now had increased access to a variety of entertainments expected books and magazines to amuse as well as instruct them. Conservative reformers who sought to keep products they perceived as dangerous out of children’s hands achieved diminishing success. In the 1870s, for example, vice reformer Anthony Comstock described the producers of “half-dime novels” as “cancer planters.” In 1914, Boy Scout librarian Franklin K. Mathiews proclaimed that series books were “blowing out the boy’s brains.” During the 1940s and 1950s, psychiatrist Frederic Wertham decried comic books as “abnormally sexually aggressive” and television as “a school for violence.” But none of these men’s efforts had a lasting impact on children’s consumer behaviors.
Adult customers, in contrast, continued to have success in shaping the content of media for children. Unlike the reformers who sought to ban products, these customers generally accommodated emerging forms of entertainment as long as they delivered particular moral and practical lessons. In respectable late nineteenth-century children’s magazines such as the Youth’s Companion and St. Nicholas, for example, subscribers gradually embraced sensational stories that highlighted the dangers of drinking and indebtedness, sports stories that celebrated the value of physical fitness and teamwork, and even courtship stories that emphasized the wisdom of parental advice.
One message that families and the businesses that marketed to children did not negotiate was the preeminence of whiteness. From the earliest years of these industries, reputable firms built their products to fit the needs of white, prosperous, Protestant families. Indeed, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, adopting the behaviors prescribed by these media was part of the criteria of being white, and thus American. From characters as far-ranging as Jo March, Frank Merriwell, Shirley Temple, and Beaver Cleaver, young consumers learned to associate light skin with both success and normalcy.
Perhaps Sesame Street’s most important legacy is its successful challenge of this message. As many commenters have noted, the show’s working-class setting and white-minority cast validated such environments both for poor urban children who had never seen their world on television before and for suburban children more accustomed to malls and supermarkets than neighborhood grocery stores. The show’s emphasis on its original environment has diminished over time – in part because of commercial pressures to give more screen time to popular characters such as Elmo that are not inherently associated with its urban neighborhood – and advocates for the interests of underserved children are justly worried that the show’s move to premium cable will exacerbate this trend.
Yet the history of American marketing to children indicates that the show’s move to a subscriber-based network creates commercial pressures that could encourage the producers to revisit the program’s ideological mission. HBO’s record on diversity is spotty, but it has acclaimed talent such as John Oliver (who already has collaborated with Sesame puppeteers on a segment on incarceration for his own show) and David Simon who have established reputations for concern about issues of social justice and urban poverty. Parental power over the network’s purse strings might transform Sesame Street’s “sell-out” into HBO’s buy-in, and make the show’s move into the penthouse the stimulus that rejuvenates its commitment to its working-class audience.