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After more than four decades on PBS, our favorite neighborhood is getting a brand new home on HBO. Ahead of the season 46 premiere on Saturday (9 a.m. ET), we sat down with longtime executive producer Carol-Lynn Parente to find out how — and why — the beloved series is making some major changes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How will Sesame Street change on HBO?
CAROL-LYNN PARENTE: It will certainly feel like Sesame Street. The challenge in being a show that’s almost 47 years old is that you constantly have to evolve, but you have to keep that essence of what feels like Sesame Street to whatever generation is watching. What’s interesting is that before we knew about the HBO deal, we were embarking on our next evolution. Every few years we take a look at the media landscape, and what kids are watching, what their expectations are, what their needs are from a curriculum standpoint and as it turns out those tracks coincided. So that what’s launching on HBO is that next evolution. The set has undergone the biggest set change we’ve ever done in our history, and it’s a big deal to go from an hour-long format to half hour.
Why change to a half-hour?
It came out of creative workshops we did about engagement. What we realized is that there is so much competition and you have to engage kids right away. If you start the show with [a child-relevant] topic, you grab them and they understand what the show is about. But in order to stay thematic strongly through the entire show, an hour was just too long, and we couldn’t hit that theme that cohesively. So that led to us to come up with a half-hour format.
You’re going to focus on the show’s core characters. Why the change and how did you decide who will be featured?
Most of our competition is led by shows with singular characters with maybe a bit of an ensemble behind them. So imagine you’re 3, and mom let’s you watch a half-hour of something. If you love some show led by a singular character, and you love Sesame Street equally, and Cookie Monster is your favorite character, well which are you going to pick? If you make the choice of the singularly led show, there’s a 100 percent chance you’ll see that character. Well if you choose Sesame Street, you might see Cookie Monster or you might not. Kids now have control and they know how to navigate interfaces and choose their content so they’re going to make a choice that has their favorite character. So when you look at it from that perspective it’s like, duh. So we had to pick those characters that are the most popular and sought after by kids, and then make a promise to them that they’ll see them everyday. This way they’re being satisfied. It doesn’t mean we wont see those other characters, but we needed to recognize there is a tier to popularity, and that popularity is about engagement.
So who is in the most popular tier?
Elmo, Abby, Cookie Monster are the top three. And the second tier, which you’ll see almost every day, is Big Bird, Grover, Oscar, and Rosita. But everyone still is in the neighborhood; no one is getting kicked out!
Will there be any new faces?
We do have a new human character, Nina [played by Suki Lopez], and she’s a bilingual Cuban-American. She’s working at the bike shop and the Laundromat sometimes. [She has] an inventor spirit and she likes to tinker with things.
How has the set changed?
That neighborhood has come to life in a way that it now resembles a real street, which is what we set out to do back in 1969. The set designer, when he was pitching for the job, showed us a picture from 1969 and the old neighborhood, which is what we took inspiration from. Over the years we’ve been trying to compete with animation, and we’ve made that set colorful in inorganic ways. It had become garish and unrealistic and [looked] much more like a set. Now it’s back to feeling like a street. It’s the neighborhood you grew up in and maybe moved out of, but now you want to move back into again.
With a nine-month delay before episodes hit PBS, do you worry about shows feeling stale?
Kids television isn’t the same as Game of Thrones where adults are waiting on the edge of their seat for the new season to launch. Kids don’t know seasons; they just have shows and characters they like. [For the celebrity cameos] we try to go for the talent that would have a little bit of longevity. Occasionally you get that wrong where someone you think is up-and-coming doesn’t last as long as you think. But because we always think of our content as evergreen, we try to pick things that have a little more lifespan to them. And the good thing is the kids don’t know who the celebrity is anyway. As long as the piece works for [kids], it doesn’t matter when they see it.
What will air on PBS during the delay before the new season runs?
We’re calling it a bridge season, a “best of,” and we’ve gone back and selected the stuff we know has been really popular. And pulled the best of the best for that time until the season airs.
Any celebrity cameos we should be excited for in the new season?
Season 46 has Gwen Stefani and Nick Jonas singing the sexiest song about triangles you will ever hear! The Fifth Harmony girls are a riot. And there are lots of selfies.