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With all its merchandising, does Sesame Street really lose money?
Photograph courtesy 2011 Sesame Workshop.
PBS is hoping that popular shows like Downton Abbey and Sherlock will bring in donations that “help finance other programs like Sesame Street and Sid the Science Kid,” explained a story published in the New York Times on Sunday. Does Sesame Street, with all its branded products on store shelves, really operate near the red?
Yes. Sesame Street and its production company the Sesame Workshop do make a lot of money from product licensing, but not nearly enough to cover expenses. According to the company’s most recent financial report, the Workshop earned about $45 million in merchandising during 2010, which accounted for one-third of its total revenue. The rest came mainly from distribution fees and royalties, and from an assortment of private donors, corporate sponsors, and government grants. That may sound like more than enough to make a puppet-based television show, but according to the same report, the operating expenses for the Sesame Workshop totaled about $133 million, including $37 million for production and development of TV shows at home and abroad; $41 million for production and distribution of non-TV content including apps, home video, and live entertainment; and a hair under $7 million for “Muppet acquisition.” (The remainder goes towards education, outreach, fundraising expenses, and assorted smaller costs.) Only about $4 million comes from PBS annually, and in return PBS recoups some of the cost.
The production budget for Sesame Street domestically is about $16 or $17 million per year, which produces about 26 episodes. At less than a million dollars per episode that’s a relative bargain. A cable show like The Walking Dead can cost $3 million per episode.
The Sesame Workshop hasn’t always collected so much revenue from the merchandising of its characters. The show was created using Jim Henson’s Muppets, and through the 1990s money the sales of Sesame Street dolls, playsets, and other toys was split with the Jim Henson Company and a German media group called EM.TV. Then in December 2000 the Sesame Workshop acquired the rights to Oscar the Grouch, Cookie Monster, and the other Sesame Street Muppets for $180 million. International licensing has also grown in recent years, especially as the show has gone global with shows like Plaza Sésamo (in Latin America), Sesamstrasse (in Germany), and Takalani Sesame (in South Africa). When The Sesame Workshop’s revenue grew by 4 percent in 2005, the New York Times noted that this was “primarily because of new income from international licensing.”
Sesame Street hasn’t always seen sunny days, however. In 1974 Sesame Street’s federal aid was slashed in half, leading the production company to cut 13 jobs. In 1995, the company laid off 47 staffers, and operated at a deficit. The recession was particularly hard on Sesame Street’s investment portfolio. Its assets shrunk by $36 million between summer 2008 and summer 2009, and in March it cut 67 of its 355 staff positions. Mitt Romney has vowed to make times tough for Sesame Street again, if he’s elected to the White House. While campaigning in Iowa, Romney signaled that he would stop federal subsidies for PBS. “We’re not going to kill Big Bird,” he said, “But Big Bird is going to have advertisements. Alright?”
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Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. He writes for Explainer and Brow Beat, and lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter.