The Magazine

Big Bird Is Big Business

PBS’s well-feathered nest.

Oct 22, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 06 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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As Vincent Vega would say, the difference between the American Sesame Street and its foreign incarnations is in the little things. In France’s 5, Rue Sésame, there’s no Big Bird character. In South Africa’s Takalani Sesame, one of the puppets has HIV.

But the purpose of all of these international versions is the same: to bring the educational and social power of America’s premiere preschool television program to children across the globe. It should be noted that these international franchises also result in licensing revenues from the foreign TV partners and—coincidentally—a multiplying of the consumer audience for other Sesame Street-licensed products. In the year following the debut of the Japanese homegrown version of the show, Sesame Workshop product-license revenue jumped 4 percent, largely from growth in Japan.

The bottom-line: In 2011 Sesame Workshop took in $46.9 million in licensing income from Sesame Street. That doesn’t seem like much, given the breadth of its river of royalty money. But keep in mind two things: First, Sesame Workshop is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, and since they’re tax-exempt they have to be careful about how much money they make. It seems pretty likely that if they were a for-profit enterprise, they could really be raking it in. Second, they don’t really need all that much money. The American version of the show costs about $17 million a year to produce (a full season consists of 26 episodes). Even if a President Romney cut the cord entirely, there’s no reason Big Bird would need, as he has suggested, to run commercials.

So why do liberals think Sesame Street is in critical need of taxpayer support? Because Sesame Street’s production company, Sesame Workshop, has an annual budget of $133 million. The company employs 1,320 people and produces not just Sesame Street, but a host of other series—and other products—too. When you look at the budget, Sesame Workshop spends $37 million researching and producing all of its TV shows, foreign and domestic, $41 million producing “non-TV content,” and roughly $7 million on “Muppet acquisition.”

So does Big Bird need federal money? In their own way, the left and right are both correct. Sesame Street can get along easily without government funding. The Sesame Workshop—an entity that has grown inexorably since its founding and now encompasses items that have nothing to do with its original mission—cannot.

It’s fitting that the liberal view of Sesame Street mirrors the liberal view of the federal government itself.

Jonathan V. Last is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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