Tanzina Vega: For more than 50 years, Linus, Charlie Brown, and the rest of Charles Schulz's Peanuts gang have been on TV at the end of October, searching for the mythical Great Pumpkin in their Halloween special, It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.
Linus: Each year, the Great Pumpkin rises out of the pumpkin patch that he thinks is the most sincere. He's got to pick this one. He's got to. I don't see how a pumpkin patch can be more sincere than this one.
Tanzina: Well, unfortunately for Linus, finding the Great Pumpkin this Halloween is going to be a little harder.
For the first time since its debut in 1966, It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown will not air on network television. Instead, it will be available on Apple's streaming service Apple TV Plus. The classic cartoon will only be available to paid subscribers, though, non-subscribers can watch for free from October 30th until November 1st. Peanuts fans are angry and many worried that the gap between who can afford to pay for content and who can't will affect our collective experience of these classics. So far, an online petition calling for Apple to air the special on network television has already gotten more than 180,000 signatures.
Joining me now to talk about all this is Alyssa Rosenberg, an opinion columnist covering culture at The Washington Post. Alyssa, thanks for talking to me.
Alyssa Rosenberg: Thanks for having me.
Tanzina: I love The Great Pumpkin. I'm just going to put it out there. I have an opinion about this. Before streaming and on-demand, I remember growing up with these shows, everybody would watch them at the same time, and we'd have this collective cultural experience. What are the benefits of doing that?
Alyssa: I think that there is real value, especially at a moment when kids are not having common in-person experiences, to making sure that they can have common cultural experiences and giving them the language and references that will help them get back into the social swing of things when, and I don't even want to say, if, they're actually back in school and back in daycare again. There is something kind of depressing. It's a minor thing. It's a minor indignity, and yet, having this beloved classic go behind a paywall is yet another indignity that 2020 has forced upon us. I think, for a lot of people, it just feels like a last straw.
Tanzina: It really does in a lot of ways. I feel like-- I'm wondering, is it just us who grew up with watching this and our kids today just really not? I mean, this is a pretty crude cartoon compared to what kids are used to seeing today. Is it just the nostalgia that boomers and Gen Xers and maybe older millennials have versus what kids are really interested in?
Alyssa: Is there anything wrong with wanting to share what you loved when you were growing up with your own kids? I don't think that's minor. I don't think that-- Traditions are traditions even if they're a little hokey or a little corny. I think it's not necessarily even about kids, it's about parents getting to share with their children.
Tanzina: There is another element to this, which is really talking about accessibility, right? There's the cultural connectivity that we all experience, but then, there's the fact that if you're not a subscriber, you won't be able to watch this at your leisure, you won't be able to see it with everyone else, it won't be on national television. What does that say about our media landscape today in terms of folks like Apple and others coming in and really taking these classics and putting them behind the paywall?
Alyssa: I think it's worth remembering that this is not the first time that a bit of beloved children's content has gone behind the paywall. A couple of years ago, Sesame Workshop moved from PBS to HBO, in part, because HBO could give them a larger series order or they could produce more episodes. Those episodes now have their first run on HBO, and they air on PBS several months later, once an exclusivity window has closed.
From a business perspective, this makes sense. You have all these competing services starting up. They all want to be able to offer things that will be appealing to people of all ages because that makes them a better buy, right? If you're Disney, you have Disney movies, you have Pixar, but you also have Marvel and Star Wars. You have a sort of all ages offering. If you're HBO, your content has been primarily aimed at adults, to some extent. No famous HBO original is appropriate for the Sesame Street set. Now, if you're Apple Plus, that service that has spent an enormous amount of money and we really don't know how it's doing, they never released official subscribership numbers. They have extended their free trials for a long time-
Tanzina: Which is typical for Apple. They're not very transparent about their numbers, neither is Netflix, right?
Alyssa: Absolutely. Well, Netflix, at least, releases subscriber numbers. We do have a clear sense of that. Apple has not done that. There is a transparency gap there. Again, Apple wants something that is going to be an incentive to subscribe and incentive to stay with the service once those trials are over. From a business perspective, it makes sense to try and stamp up these legacy properties.
Again, we have no idea how many people actually subscribe to Apple TV. Theoretically, the solution is that they're going to allow these specials to stream for free for three days, every year, around the relevant holidays. The problem is, not everybody can stream content. Netflix has become so culturally ubiquitous that it's easy to assume that everyone in the United States has an internet subscription, and not only has an internet subscription but has broadband fast enough to stream this stuff, and actually watch- [crosstalk]
Tanzina: Have a phone and/or smart TV that they can watch it on, right?
Alyssa: That's just absolutely not true. According to the 2019 American Community Survey, 13% of American households didn't have an internet subscription at all.
Tanzina: Alyssa, we're really talking about poor kids and poor people and low-income folks. When you mentioned Sesame Street, I grew up watching Sesame Street, partly because it was available to us. This feels like it might be a small thing but it really does point to those inequities.
Alyssa: It's not just economic, there's an urban and rural divide. I mean, there are places in America where, even if you can afford broadband, you cannot get it because the service is not physically available where you live. Something that is supposed to make life easier for consumers actually makes it more inaccessible and makes us culturally more fragmented, and that's a loss.
Tanzina: When you have content that's spread over so many different streaming services, is it even possible to have a special like The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown or movies like It's A Wonderful Life to become those cultural, iconic touchstones anymore?
Alyssa: I think there will still be hits. Someday, we will have movie theaters again, broadcast television isn't dead, but anything that chips away at that cultural community really hurts, especially in a moment when we're physically separated from each other like this one.
Tanzina: I still find it very sad that we will not have The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown on network television. Alyssa Rosenberg is an opinion columnist covering culture at TheWashington Post. Alyssa, thanks so much.
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