It's no surprise that
, which is still the gold standard in educational children's television after 47 seasons and counting, can with great respect and ease welcome a new Muppet character named Julia, who happens to be autistic. If anything,
feels a tad late to the idea, given how parents have nervously watched autism rates increase over the past few decades and children have learned to relate to peers who are on the autism spectrum.
Viewers meet Julia as she is colouring with Elmo, Abby Cadabby and their grown-up friend Alan (Alan Muraoka), who owns Hooper's Store. Big Bird drops by and introduces himself to Julia, but she won't talk to him. He wonders if she's shy, because, he says, "I can feel shy sometimes too." But it's not that. Alan and the gang quickly and directly explain Julia's autism and how it affects her personality ("She might not answer you right away," Alan says) and that's that - Big Bird totally gets it.
Thus Sesame Street has once again done its job with little fanfare or self-congratulatory narrative. The only lesson here is the same message Sesame Street has been transmitting since 1969: We all belong here, we are all friends and sharing is the best way to get along.
Soon enough Julia has introduced the gang to an impromptu game of what she calls "boing-boing" which Abby then terms "boing tag". Julia is upset by the sound of a passing police siren, but her friends have learned how to comfort her and patiently wait for her to redirect.
In other words, all seems well on Sesame Street these days, but noticeably different - especially if it's been a while since you've visited.
The show, produced by the Sesame Workshop (which used to be called the Children's Television Workshop), moved to HBO in 2015 in a multi-year development deal. Though the switch from PBS still has its critics, who worry that Sesame Street might not reach poorer households the way it used to, it's hard to argue with the logic or the terms of the agreement: In exchange for never having to scrounge for funding, new Sesame Street episodes air first on the premium cable network and then make their way to public-television stations nine months later, at no cost to the stations.
In return, HBO can use the power of Sesame Street to compete with Amazon and Netflix, both of which have made significant strides in children's programming.
On top of that, the deal acknowledges what any household with kids already understands: TV is no longer watched when it airs. Toddlers and kids in more fortunate households take their shows when they want them, choosing from lush archives of on-demand programming.
And yet, despite its freedom from budgetary woes, Sesame Street still acts as a symbol for all that is good and right (and vulnerable) about publicly funded media. When President Donald Trump's proposed budget was unveiled last month, it suggested whacking all of the US$445 million ($642m) in federal money to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes funds to more than a thousand public TV and radio stations; media reporters and headline writers habitually reached for references to Big Bird and other Sesame characters as a way of expressing what could be lost, when a more apt symbol (and one who is suitably Muppet-esque) would be documentary film-maker Ken Burns.
Whatever cuts may come, they are no longer really Big Bird's problem - so long as HBO keeps paying the bills. Much of what you see via PBS has already been funded and underwritten in a number of creative ways, relying on the generous gifts of individuals and corporations who value the core mission. What Congress doles out to the CPB is the tiniest drop in the bucket; Trump's proposed cuts come across as a mean-spirited way of thwarting public media's reach, especially in more rural parts of the country. Sesame Street's message of sharing and co-operation sadly has little influence in Washington these days.
Watching Julia acquaint herself with the world of Sesame Street, and vice-versa, I couldn't help but notice how shiny and new the show looks since the HBO deal. Sesame Street has always evolved with the times and long ago shed some of the chill, lo-fi vibe that defined its earliest days. The streaming, on-demand Sesame Street of the 21st century is more vivid and compressed - high-def and even higher pitched, thanks to the ubiquity of Elmo's incessant falsetto.
Sesame Street's authenticity is intact, and it remains a national treasure, but it's impossible not to notice that the neighbourhood has changed. That, kids, is what we call new money.