The news of iconic children’s television show “Sesame Street”’s new arrangement with the HBO MAX streaming service has sent ripples around the Internet. Starting this year, episodes of “Sesame Street” will debut on HBO and on the HBO MAX service, with new episodes being made available to PBS “at some point.” Parents Television Council’s Tim Winter recently told New York Times that “HBO is holding hostage underprivileged families” who can no longer afford to watch new “Sesame Street” episodes.
The move is particularly galling because the show is partially paid for with public funding. Let's imagine an alternative: what if “Sesame Street” were open access? What if the show’s funding had come with a requirement that it be made available to the public?
Open access advocacy is about showing decisionmakers a world they hadn’t thought possible, where certain resources are available to anyone regardless of economic means. It might have been unthinkable a decade ago that outputs from government-funded research could be made available to the public rather than locked down in expensive journals. But in 2013, the White House ordered all government agencies that fund research to implement policies ensuring that that research is shared with the public for free, no less than a year after publication in a journal. Back then, the idea of going beyond the one-year embargo period was still unthinkable for some, but in the following years, a dozen major foundations would implement policies requiring that the research they fund be made available to the public on day one and published under licenses that allow anyone to share and reuse it.
The open access movement has made great strides in bringing government-funded research to the public. But peer-reviewed papers are just the tip of the iceberg of publicly funded materials: just as making scientific research available to the public helps ensure that the people who could most benefit from cutting-edge medical research aren’t locked out, making government-funded educational resources available to the public helps ensure that economically disadvantaged students can get access to the same quality of resources as wealthier ones. When the government funds educational materials without taking steps to make them available to the public, it risks deepening socioeconomic gaps in society rather than working to close them.
In 2011, the federal government launched an ambitious, two-billion dollar initiative to revamp career training programs across the country, with a requirement that all educational resources produced as a part of the program be available to the public and licensed under a license that allows anyone to adapt and redistribute them. The program brought the open educational resources (OER) movement to national prominence, and since then, many states have adopted OER policies requiring that state-funded educational materials be open. And in 2017, the Department of Education adopted a rule requiring that all of the materials it funds be made open to the public. But that doesn’t affect the wealth of educational resources funded by other departments.
Which brings us back to “Sesame Street.” While it’s true that direct federal government funding makes up only a small portion of Sesame Workshop’s revenue, the nonprofit gets considerably more income from the public television stations across the country that pay for PBS programming, and those are also funded by the government via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (a nonprofit created and funded by Congress). They’re also funded by grants, corporate underwriters, and, well, viewers like you. If those governments, institutions, and individual donors had demanded that the works they fund be made available to the public, then we would not be facing a future where HBO exacts a toll for access to “Sesame Street.” Indeed, the government’s primary interest in funding cultural and educational works should be to ensure that they can stay available to the public. As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in the Washington Post:
It’s about whether people who don’t live in areas with museums, or who can’t afford cable, much less premium cable subscriptions, have access to arts and culture. Private funding can build museums, but it may take public money to subsidize skyrocketing admission. Elmo products may keep “Sesame Street” alive and cranking out new episodes, but it was the PBS pipeline that made sure children of all economic backgrounds had access to new episodes at the same time.
If the public paid for a resource, then individual members of the public should not have to pay again in order to have access to that resource. Open access has transformed how academic publishing works in the United States, and OER has done the same for collegiate educational materials. But many other government-funded resources have gone untouched, including a wealth of government-funded educational resources, entertainment, and fine art. For policymakers creating programs to fund those types of materials, the story of “Sesame Street” might serve as a cautionary tale: if public access is not hard-coded into those programs from the beginning, then someone may erect a wall and demand a toll to enjoy the fruits of that public funding.
EFF is proud to celebrate Open Access Week 2019.