Saturday, August 22, 2015

Feathering one's nest

Hang around the UAE long enough and you start noticing some trends. First and foremost, the whole "at least it's a dry heat" thing doesn't fly here -- being so close to the ocean means you get all the heat and humidity you can stand. The local soccer league has kicked off games with temperatures in the mid- to high 90s and 70 percent humidity. Not surprisingly, attendances are even lower than usual.

Another thing is how often words such as "exclusive", "ambition" and "prestige" are thrown around, especially in the retail and financial sectors. There's one level of basic service for the hoi polloi but, if you're willing and able to pay a bit extra, you suddenly get upgraded from Number To Be Served to a Valued Priority Customer. I got a snootful of this on Day 1 here -- there was a long line for the medical exams you have to undergo before receiving a residence visa, but because I and another white Westerner each stumped up 200 dirhams (about $50), we were ushered to the front of the line. As one who considers himself Not That Special as a matter of policy, being plopped in front of a queue of South Asian-looking men who were already there waiting patiently was absolutely mortifying. (To their credit, if this sudden display of #WPR put them off, they didn't show it outwardly.)

This two-tier system appears to be the way of the future. There's the high-end market, who want and can afford the best, and then there's everyone else. With the American middle class increasingly being hollowed out by job losses and economic shifts, it seems as though there isn't much of a middle ground on which to stand anymore. It's Dollar Store or Dolce & Gabbana, Shopko or Chanel. Just look at the airline industry for an example. Economy-class passengers are packed in like sardines, treated almost like nuisances by the airlines and told to be grateful for what service they do receive. Step up to business or first class, though, and suddenly the airlines can't do enough for you. A drink before take-off, served by your Personal Food and Beverage Consultant? But of course. Chauffeur service to and from the airport? Happy to assist. A luxury lounge with free food, drinks and wi-fi? Right this way, valued customer. Membership clearly has its privileges, as I can personally attest, but it's hard not to feel uneasy about being waited on hand and foot while others are treated like those who rode steerage on the Titanic.

Given this context, the news that Sesame Street has been sold to HBO and will have all of its new episodes for the next five years debut on the pay-TV channel is a bit worrying at first. Why, after 45 years and a successful partnership with PBS, would Sesame Street make itself available only to those who can afford bigger TV packages or streaming video services? The Washington Post article linked above closes thusly:
Sesame Street's move to HBO may give it a longer financial runway. But one group that could suffer will be poorer Americans who've always watched Sesame Street on free, over-the-air television. Although broadcast TV will presumably continue to air old episodes, viewers will have to wait nine months to see the fresh content if they can't afford pricey premium cable packages or a high-speed Internet connection.
The result is that Sesame Street — which has long been an educational staple for all Americans, rich or poor — may soon become more of a luxury good than it used to be.
That's kind of a bleak sign-off, and perhaps needlessly so. Old episodes will continue airing on PBS, and the funding from HBO will allow almost double the amount of episodes per season. Concerns about less well-off kids having to wait nine months to see episodes kids with access to HBO can see immediately are valid, but when was the last time you heard a six-year-old demanding spoiler alerts? Plus, after PBS funding became a political issue during the 2012 presidential campaign in addition to its constant scrutiny from alleged "budget hawks", the makers of Sesame Street seeking out a less volatile source of funding is perfectly understandable. It must be frightening to have 30 percent of your budget depend on the whims of people who prioritize the ability to kill poor, brown foreigners more efficiently over improving American education.

Rebecca Watson sums up the HBO deal perfectly in her latest video. It might look a bit odd at first glance, but it's a net win for all involved. Sesame Street gets more (and more reliable) funding, viewers get more episodes, and a staple of American childhoods retains its presence on free, over-the-air TV. Ideally, such a move wouldn't be necessary and America's public broadcaster would be able to create quality content while being funded and valued more like its peers (the CBC, NHK, BBC, etc.). We don't live in that world, so this could be the next-best thing -- a public-private partnership that benefits everyone to some degree and leaves no one worse off. Its biggest danger might be that it provides encouragement to those who assume the private sector will always take the place of public funding to save entities for which there is demand. That way madness lies.

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