Sesame Workshop CEO Outlines Vision To Ensure Show's Survival CEO Jeffrey Dunn reveals his not-for-profit company foundered financially in recent years and sets out his vision to sustain the children's television production and its educational mission.
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Sesame Workshop CEO Outlines Vision To Ensure Show's Survival

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Sesame Workshop CEO Outlines Vision To Ensure Show's Survival

Sesame Workshop CEO Outlines Vision To Ensure Show's Survival

Sesame Workshop CEO Outlines Vision To Ensure Show's Survival

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CEO Jeffrey Dunn reveals his not-for-profit company foundered financially in recent years and sets out his vision to sustain the children's television production and its educational mission.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Sesame Street made its debut in 1969, but its future has been in question. In recent years, its parent company has flirted with financial disaster. Jeffrey Dunn took over as CEO of Sesame Workshop two years ago. He spoke with NPR's David Folkenflik, for the first time spelling out his plans to ensure the show's survival.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: The mission remains.

JEFFREY DUNN: Are we helping a kid, you know, grow smarter, stronger and kinder? And that's the way we evaluate everything that we do.

FOLKENFLIK: Jeffrey Dunn is a soft-spoken man with a hard-charging objective.

DUNN: If we didn't change, don't change, we don't exist 10 years from now, maybe five years from now, right? I mean we were losing large amounts of money.

FOLKENFLIK: A look at Sesame's financial statements sheds light and explains why it laid off 10 percent of its workforce three years ago. Revenues plunged by about a quarter between 2012 and 2015. Think of this guy.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Elmo) Yay, boy, what a wonderful story.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Elmo. Sesame Workshop made a lot of money from sales to parents who wanted to watch "Elmo and Friends" with their kids. First it was videocassettes then DVDs. Those profits have all but evaporated in the digital, on-demand age. Revenues from Elmo and other Muppet merchandise dropped sharply, too.

Dunn knows this terrain well. He was a top executive at Nickelodeon and at the company that produces "Thomas, the Tank Engine" before joining Sesame Workshop just over two years ago.

DUNN: In 1969 when we started, there were three shows - you know, "Captain Kangaroo," "Mr. Rogers" and "Sesame Street." Today there are well over a hundred preschool shows, not to mention movies, not to mention online characters - all kinds of people that are trying to sell licensed merchandise in stores.

FOLKENFLIK: People think rightly of PBS when they think about "Sesame Street." Its videos are also very popular on the PBS Kids digital app. But PBS and its stations do not pay a dollar to Sesame. Earlier this year, Dunn struck a deal with HBO to help pay for Sesame's production costs. New episodes now run first on HBO and then appear on PBS stations months later. Paula Kerger is the CEO of PBS.

PAULA KERGER: I am grateful for the fact that it has enabled Sesame to be a stronger organization. I appreciate the fact that we have access to more episodes. But there is a aspect of this that, you know, still does not sit quite right with me.

FOLKENFLIK: Kerger recognizes the landscape has changed for all media players, including PBS, yet she notes that the original intent behind "Sesame Street" stressed the need to reach children who did not have educational opportunities outside the home.

PBS of course is free. As a premium channel, HBO relies on parents forking over several hundred dollars a year. Many families cannot afford that, Kerger says.

KERGER: We want to make sure that all kids have access to content that is going to help them succeed both in school and in life. And somehow the delay for me felt problematic.

FOLKENFLIK: Without the HBO deal or something like it, Jeffrey Dunn says Sesame might not have endured. HBO's money helps pay for production of the program and development of new initiatives.

DUNN: I don't think TV's going away. I think 45 years from now we're still going to be on PBS helping kids through that platform. But if that's the only way that we're helping kids, we will have missed a major opportunity, and we will have not delivered on the promise of this organization.

FOLKENFLIK: And Dunn has been restless in those two years. There's a new all-digital YouTube channel called Sesame Studios. A new deal involving IBM's Watson is to explore how computers can tailor lessons for individual preschoolers. And Dunn used a windfall to create an investment fund for new ventures in educational technology. His search for new sources of revenue continues, too.

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JOHN OLIVER: You're selling lemonade, are you?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As Big Bird) Oh, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I got my old lemonade stand, and I'm going to take all the money that I collect to help some amazing kids all over the world.

FOLKENFLIK: HBO's John Oliver joined Big Bird at Sesame's annual fundraising gala in midtown Manhattan over the summer.

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OLIVER: Don't worry. Don't worry, Big Bird. There are so many generous people here tonight. Maybe they will be willing to contribute to your lemonade fund.

FOLKENFLIK: Dunn wants philanthropy to make up 20 percent of Sesame's income. Currently it's less than 2 percent. Revenues have largely rebounded, and Dunn has been pushing his staff to expand their ambitions further. The show already has a presence in dozens of countries around the world. Now there's a special Muppet in Afghanistan to promote education for girls and a new digital character with autism. Many kids with autism are bullied, Dunn says, inspiring Sesame's latest initiative. In coming days, Sesame is expected to release the findings of its research project on how kids learn empathy and kindness.

DUNN: The big debate that has been had here for many years is, are we a media company, or are we an educational company? And the truth is we're both.

FOLKENFLIK: Educating kids, not just entertaining them, focusing on the disadvantaged, solvent once more - Dunn contends Sesame Workshop is on the right path. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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