Reality vs. Perfection: Why I'm Okay With Sesame Street's Move To HBO Even Though I'm Not Happy About It

When I was in film school, my instructors had a pithy phrase to educate us on the difference between our perfect vision of a film, and the way that film comes together in the real world.

“There’s the film you want to make, and the film you actually make."

Reality will place limits on you... and that's okay. Perfection is an illusion anyway. Real world pragmatism - that is, taking the world as it is, not how you'd like it to be - isn't something to rebel against, it's to be embraced. I think a lot of people - lawyers included - think that if you can't get everything you want, you've failed, and that means you're weak. You haven't represented your client to the best of your ability. You haven't bent the world to your will. But that's a lie because that's not how the world works. What were my instructors really saying? Get used to imperfection. I think we lawyers can stand to internalize that a bit more and pass that knowledge on to our clients.

In any negotiation, the parties will hopefully understand they're not going to get everything they want. And if they don't, it's our job to educate them on that fact. As a thought experiment, ask yourself if you can name a real-life situation where two parties came to the table and one party demanded everything on its list and the other party capitulated entirely? I'd be surprised if you could.

During my second year of law school, I learned a valuable lesson on this fact. I was told by an experienced attorney that successful negotiations all have common elements:

  1. Both parties come to the table in good faith, not to injure or fleece the other party;
  2. Both parties understand that a deal should benefit both of them;
  3. Both parties understand that neither will get everything they want; and
  4. Both parties know their "drop-out point," that is, the point at which they won't or can't give anymore and the deal becomes detrimental instead of beneficial.

The central theme running through these factors? A certain amount of, if not altruism, then pragmatism; no one gets everything they want all the time, as this Calvin and Hobbes strip deftly illustrates.

That's why all the hand-wringing and blouse-rending over Sesame Street's move to HBO is, I think, generally misplaced (HBO will air new episodes in a half-hour format instead of the traditional one-hour, with PBS getting the shows in a second run. HBO will also create several educational spin-off shows aimed at kids). Yes it's sad. Yes we'd all prefer it stayed on PBS.  But the world is what it is. According to Jeffrey Dunn, Sesame Workshop's CEO, HBO will: "provides Sesame Workshop with the critical funding it needs to be able to continue production of Sesame Street and secure its nonprofit mission of helping kids grow smarter, stronger and kinder..."  In other words, the show ran out of money. 

So would losing the show entirely be a better solution? To sacrifice its existence at the alter of integrity? Some will argue yes, that integrity is too important to compromise over... that the show stands apart because it's a public good, provided to children for free, regardless of race or economic advantage. Others will argue that keeping the show around in any capacity is worth the compromise. The producers of Sesame Street decided that having some is better than having none.

Sesame Street is a public good, make no mistake. My one year old is positively entranced by it, which makes it a godsend when my wife and I need an hour of respite. My own education about the world began there, and if you're in your 30's or 40's, yours likely did too.* Like many, I'm concerned that putting it on HBO takes it away from those who need it most - the poor kids who don't have access to premium cable. We have an addiction in this country to funneling resources away from the poorest and towards the richest, and this move is just the latest example of that.

But aside from sweeping legislation that allows our tax money to be put towards public educational programs, I'm not sure there's much that will change the situation (that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make the world better. Only that in the midst of a negotiation with stakes on the line, you can't wait for public policy to do your work for you). So until that changes, I think we are better off having Sesame Street than not having it. That's the reality of our world. And I can accept it, even if I don't like it. 

* I grew up in the days when Snuffleupagus was still Big Bird's imaginary friend that no one else could see. Even at five years old, that didn't make sense to me. C'mon Gordon, he's an eight foot tall wooly mammoth that can talk and he's standing right behind you. Learn to use your peripheral vision for Christ's sake!

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA