‘Sesame Street’ will look different in its HBO debut

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Big Bird sings about sunny days in Sesame Street's new, season 46 show open. (Photo: Zach Hyman/PBS)

Big Bird sings about sunny days in Sesame Street’s new, season 46 show open. (Photo: Zach Hyman/PBS)

In the run-up to the Jan. 16 debut of Sesame Street on HBO, producers at Sesame Workshop are preparing viewers for big changes to the show, once an exclusive mainstay of the PBS Kids schedule.

In addition to the shortened 30-minute format tested on PBS stations, the show has been streamlined to focus its appeal on preschoolers, its intended target audience, as Vulture and the Washington Post report.

The changes respond to dramatic shifts in children’s media. Following the rise of cable TV networks Nickelodeon and Disney Channel, competition for preschool audiences “exploded with the advent of the Internet and particularly the tablet, which empowered even very young children to make their own programming decisions,” Vulture’s Jessica Pressler reported. “Sesame Street may still have been a ­sentimental favorite of adults, but it was clear this loyalty was not inherited by their children.”

To build that loyalty with today’s kids, newly hired Sesame Workshop creative director Brown Johnson, known for developing the interactive formats of shows like Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer, moved to cut the screen time of minor Muppet characters. The anxious monster Telly, for example, will see a reduced role in favor of those that test best with kids.

Other changes include redesigning the set to make it more inviting and eliminating segments that winked at parents in the audience, such as parodies of popular TV shows Mad Men and Game of Thrones. The humor was lost on kids, who experienced “fatigue” that caused them to stop watching.

Not everybody is excited about the show’s new direction, according to Pressler, whose piece focused on former Sesame Street head writer Joey Mazzarino.

Mazzarino left the Workshop last fall, shortly after its new partnership with HBO was announced. He shared the news in a Facebook post, writing: “After almost a year of battling for what I believe is the heart and soul of the show, I lost the war.”

Pressler wrote:

“For Joey Mazzarino, the sidelining of Telly, the shortening of the show, the reorienting of the episodes to what [Sesame Workshop senior v.p. Carol-Lynn] Parente and Brown called “child-relevant topics” like boo-boos, and the loss of parodies were things he could not bear. To him, this extra layer of sophisticated humor was what separated it from the Nickelodeons of the world.”

The Washington Post’s Drew Harwell reports on the Workshop’s goal to modernize the show. Producers are making a big push to make content appealing on smaller screens like phones and tablets and to grab the attention of kids who, now more than ever, are making their own choices about whether to tune in or not.

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