Getting the (Big) Bird

One day, in my youth, a teacher took me to a room where just about everything was removed except for a TV and a chair. My instructions were simple: At a certain time the teacher was to turn on the TV and leave me to watch a program. When the program was over, the teacher would turn off the TV and ask me some questions. At the appointed time, she turned on the TV and left the room.

The program was a new show was called Sesame Street, and I was part of a test audience, maybe for state evaluation of the show as a teaching tool. I can’t remember the show itself, or the post-program questions, or the answers I gave. I do remember I thought it was for little kids, which wasn’t surprising since I was older than the target demographic.

That came to mind the other day, when I heard Sesame Street would become part of HBO’s line up. This doesn’t mean it’s moving from PBS, only that it will be seen on HBO first, before showing up on broadcast television nine months later. That, of course, brought on wailing and gnashing of teeth from the usual suspects, who decried the mingling of commercialism with public broadcasting. And I couldn’t help but to think how Sesame Street did that right from the start.

I can’t remember when the first Sesame Street toys appeared, but it was pretty close to the start of the show. This meant the producers of Sesame Street got a cut off each toy sold. Being a long way from woo-woo land, we never saw anything wrong with it. My guess is that the current bunch wringing their hands over the Sesame Street – HBO deal didn’t, either. Of course, once you’ve got a product tie-in, you’re involved in commercialism, which, when you think about it, is a pretty good deal if you’re non-profit and channel the bulk of the funds into production. Performers and artists have to eat, too. Michelangelo didn’t paint the Sistine Chapel for free.

This makes the disconnect by those who lament how Sesame Street will show up first on HBO even more curious. Public broadcasting has long named donors, just like some churches place names on pews and under stained glass windows. You have to wonder if they even watch PBS, or endured those extended commercials known as fundraisers. Or perhaps they’ve forgotten that companies have always sponsored radio and television as advertisement. The moment a public broadcasting program announces that a program is made possible in part by a list of companies, they have become commercial. Just as product tie-ins are commercialism as well. Consider that PBS’s site boasts the advertising potential of sponsorship. Being shocked at the commercial aspect is a bit like Captain Renault shocked to find gambling just as the croupier hands him his winnings.

Of course, if more people understood this, more would question why there needs to be government funding for public broadcasting in the first place, and this may be the true point behind the hand wringing. Ask yourself how going after corporate dollars might influence what is shown and what is not. Aside from a certain political slant, each corporate sponsor casts doubt on both the claim of neutrality and that PBS must be funded at taxpayer expense or disappear. This raises the inconvenient question of, if PBS is dependent on taxpayer money, why do they hold those fundraisers and beg for donations of used cars, and go after corporate advertisers?

That’s something they might not want folks to notice. Just as the Sesame Street – HBO deal undercuts a favorite argument that any sort of budget cuts or government shutdown puts Big Bird in jeopardy, a claim that hasn’t been true for a long time. It’s all completely legal, of course, but it undercuts the image they want to project.

Which means the naysayers haven’t thought of the PBS commercial connections, or don’t want us to think about it, or fall into that category known as the “true believer.” In any event, the PBS sky is not falling. If they really think about this, it opens up a new range of possibilities, particularly in this day of streaming media.

Incidentally, here’s something I’ve heard, but haven’t tried. If you want to learn Spanish or French, select SAP on your TV and watch a program like Sesame Street. It’s supposed to help you learn the basics.

Too bad you can’t do the same with economics. Some folks need a primer.