Big Bird is History: Why We Fund PBS

October 30, 2012 | 5 books mentioned 17 4 min read

Last week, a friend of mine told me he never understood why the government funded PBS in the first place. Sesame Street is marketable and could be bought out by Disney or Nickelodeon in a second. The same goes for all of PBS’s best shows. So why should taxpayers fund PBS?

“Believe” is the most overused buzzword of political rhetoric, so I will avoid it. But I really think PBS should be subsidized by the government. Here’s why.

PBS is a cheap way to educate. There’s way more of your tax dollar going to war machines than to this frivolous arts-n-farts station. Yes, it’s run by aesthetes and Ivy League intellectuals. But that should be a point of national pride. The History Channel now airs “Did Aliens Build the Pyramids.” The Learning Channel airs “Say Yes to the Dress.” If you let the market choose your programming, sooner or later, it will lead to Honey Boo Boo.

Henson Kept Big Bird Safe from For-Profits

It’s true that Sesame Street (produced by CTW, the Children’s Television Workshop) could get bought out by Disney – in an instant. In the 1980s, when Michael Eisner came to Disney and started its corporate expansion into resorts, hotels, cruise ships, Broadway shows, TV networks, stores, sports teams, etc., he also made a deal with Jim Henson to buy the Muppets.

But not the Sesame Street Muppets. Henson created Big Bird for CTW and owned the copyright. Henson refused to sell Eisner the Sesame Muppets, which included Big Bird, Oscar, Bert, Ernie, Grover, and Elmo. Half of all licensing money from these characters went to CTW, for Sesame’s autonomy and survival. Licensing these character was the financial lifeblood of Sesame Street at that point.

CTW’s Sesame Street started in 1969 as a grand experiment to see what would happen if you gave all children (inner city, rural kids, and suburban alike) entertaining pre-school lessons as a head start. When you consider the alternatives, this is an awfully cheap way to educate and unite kids all over the country.

Henson Was a For-Profit

Sesame Street was a great social experiment that came out of the liberal 60s. But in many ways, the show was a product of free market capitalism. Jim Henson, a successful businessman, donated his services to the show. He didn’t get a paycheck for it. For Henson, it was worth doing – for free. The show’s funding came from private philanthropy in the beginning, the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Foundation. They put up the hundreds of thousands necessary to do research, hire education specialists, artists, and so on. CTW was not originally publicly funded. It did receive some public funds later, but then eventually became independent on the sale of toys (remember those $30 Tickle-Me Elmos?). So if private business is responsible for Sesame Street, why do we need to fund PBS?

The thing is, you need both sides – public and private – to make Sesame Street. The show was the brainchild of Rosemary Ganz Cooney, who was at the time an employee of New York’s channel 13, the nation’s first Public Broadcasting channel. Sesame Street was the kind of thing no other network would dream of – clearly – and no network would even air. It is sui generis, original, and produced by a company that doesn’t want to make a profit; it wants to keep achieving its mission of teaching lessons. It wants independence. No other station would offer CTW a home without strings attached. PBS’s lack of economic motives was imperative. PBS offers a home to strange shows that just want to do something positive.

coverThat’s why Jim Henson didn’t let Michael Eisner buy Big Bird. Oh Eisner tried, and he made Jim Henson pretty “annoyed,” according to a 1990 Washington Post article, trying – in Cooney’s words. According to the book Street Gang, when Henson told him Sesame Street characters were not on the table, Eisner relented and invited Cooney and Henson for “a peace lunch.” Cooney said, “Michael was absolutely being just his most charming self… but then out of the blue, he said something that stopped Jim cold… he made some reference to the Sesame Street Muppets…Jim turned to Michael and said, ‘You did it again!’” This was a man who never seemed angry – getting angry.

And according to a 1991 Forbes article, when Disney’s lawyers finally realized they couldn’t get the Sesame Street Muppets, “Disney wanted to limit their use, presumably to enhance the value of the Muppets it was buying.” Disney wanted to see less Big Bird, in order to get more profits for Mickey. That’s the way the free market works, baby. It’s a zero-sum game, and the strong squash the weak. In a 1991 Newsweek article, a Henson source said Disney lawyer Jeffrey Katzenberg countered Henson’s plea for a “fair deal,” by saying, “Fair deal! Get out of the ‘60s, pal. You’re in Hollywood now.”

CTW could sell itself to Disney any day of the week if it wanted to. It pointedly does not want to. It wants to remain independent, to listen only to its creators’ consciences and its panel of educators and researchers. If Sesame Street were bought by Disney, it would be subject to Disney’s shareholders’ opinions. Shareholders of a global entertainment conglomerate like Disney probably care about a lot of nice things but none more than money.

For Innovation, We Need Both

The public television system is above all else an opportunity. You may not like most of the shows on PBS – Downton Abbey or Antiques Roadshow or Jim Lehrer or Barney – but the PBS infrastructure needs to stay available for innovation. For the next Sesame Street. For innovations that will bring us all together as a nation, make us better, stronger, and smarter. We need the potential for informative programming to come into poor neighborhoods. We need the potential for a new big idea that will, perhaps, make our teens decide to major in math and science and stimulate our economy. I don’t know what the next thing will be, but I know the networks won’t air it. They’ll air Millionaire Matchmaker and Real Housewives.

Sesame Street was an amazing moment in our national history, aspiring to unite all kids in a shared love of learning and a shared wonder at what America could do. It came about because of a unique partnership between the free market and a governmentally-funded station. We need both to give us another Sesame Street. If you shut down the public part of the equation, you’re dooming the next generation to a future without that opportunity.

Big Bird won’t get fired. CTW makes its own money. That’s not the issue. The issue is – in 1969, who else would have aired a crazy idea like Sesame Street if not PBS?

teaches “Muppets, Mickey, and Money” at Boston University. She has been published in, The Awl, Explosion-Proof, the Electric Literature Outlet, The Faster Times, and in the forthcoming Trout Family Almanac. She is writing a book about Jim Henson and money.


  1. What a great piece and so right! We need public television, as well as commercial TV. I hardly watch any programs of the latter…
    Johanna van Zanten

  2. If America were truly a just society, we’d subsidize the arts on a scale that’s comparable to Canada, the Netherlands and other Western nations.

  3. As one of the organizers of the Million Puppet March coming up this weekend, I was delighted to see this article when I fired up my computer this morning. Michael Eisner may be a hero of capitalism, but he’s no friend of education.

    Thank you for reminding us that not all things of value can be measured in dollars and why we must support the incubation of great ideas in more that strictly capitalistic systems.

  4. elizabeth, i think this post would be stronger if you documented what you are saying instead of just saying it. the thrust of your argument seems to be that sesame street is “a cheap way to educate.” but there’s not a number in this article that shows us that is the case. it’s not enough to celebrate that federal funds went to sesame street instead of the war in afghanistan; you, or someone, should show that the money on sesame street actually accomplishes something. i’d like to believe that it does, but absent any documentation or even a persuasive argument, it’s hard to be sure.

    also, the counterargument that you want to push against is that PBS and government funding is accomplishing something the private sector can’t do or won’t do well. is that actually true? “yo gabba gabba” is a show that has received some good reviews, and not just because of the musical guests, and that is produced by the private sector. it might be true that sesame street is a better show than for educational purposes than yo gabba gabba, but it would be nice to show that or argue it persuasively; otherwise, the case for government doing something the private sector won’t do is weaker. (one possible argument here: PBS is free, while to get yo gabba gabba you need to pay for cable, so without sesame street poor kids won’t get good programming for children.) and if there is evidence that the private sector is making yo gabba gabba a bad show versus pure sesame street, you should show that, not just state it as a major reason why the public sector needs to be involved in children’s programming..

    finally, i take issue with your characterization of capitalism in your tale of how disney lawyers wanted to shut down the sesame street muppets: “that’s the way the free market works, baby.” actually, i don’t think so. like apple’s endless patent war against samsung, lawyering with the agenda of restricting competition is the antithesis of capitalism, not the embodiment of it. adam smith wouldn’t approve of what disney apparently was up to there.

  5. first sentence of second paragraph should read, “also, the argument that you want to push is that PBS and government funding is accomplishing something the private sector can’t do or won’t do well. is that actually true? “yo gabba gabba” is a show that has received some good reviews, and not just because of the musical guests, and that is produced by the private sector.

  6. Thank you for the healthy debate, Jumberto111. My replies, point by point:

    I say TV education is relatively cheap because you make one show and deliver it to millions of children. It is mass distribution on a national scale, and the infrastructure is already in place.

    What kind of test results would show you that Sesame Street positively influences children’s intellectual development? You can’t take a child’s intellectual temperature. It’s qualitative. Sesame Street influenced me profoundly — I felt that adults in my country cared about my education, and not just the ones making me sit still for A minuses. Heck, I still feel that way when I watch Frontline or The American Presidents on PBS.

    Yo Gabba Gabba is a lovely program, but it has been around for a brief five years, and it is indebted to Sesame Street’s innovation, as are nearly all children’s shows today. It’s a lot easier to do a Sesame-Street-like show in 2012 than it was in 1969. Because Sesame Street raised the bar. Just because private companies do sometimes come up with insightful programming doesn’t mean we can depend on them to do so. Do you think Yo Gabba Gabba will last 43 years with the same mission? Remember, MTV used to be a place where bands could show their videos. Tastes change, and we don’t want our national intelligence to ride the trends of the market.

    As for Adam Smith, it’s fine to theorize about what a free market would look like, ideally, but in the real world, we must be pragmatic. We know PBS had a big success with Sesame Street, which included public and private funds. When something works, don’t break it.

  7. thanks for the reply, elizabeth. i think it fills in some of what i saw as gaps in the original post.

    i actually tend to agree with most of what you wrote (other than your characterization of capitalism). i don’t have cable, and most of the tv-watching i do is pbs or sports. my comments were mostly to observe that arguments about the merits of pbs would benefit from data, if some were available, or especially compelling logic; otherwise, the debate usually devolves into “he said, she said,” because what is obvious to one side is not obvious to the other. but i guess a short post can only contain so much, and perhaps there is not a lot of good data out there on this topic.

    on the capitalism front, let’s agree to disagree. the fact that disney and apple (in my opinion) work to shut down competition strikes me as profoundly opposed to the basic ideas in classical economics, but it may be true that adam smith’s ideas are only useful if they work in practice, and they don’t. that’s been a criticism of marxism for decades.

  8. Well I see your point, j. Capitalism could be characterized as Henson’s creativity, the Rockefeller Foundation’s charity, Eisner’s acquisitiveness, or BP’s oil spill. None would capture the face of capitalism in total, only an expression.

  9. Also, with history textbooks so unreadable, it’s almost become the case that if it’s not on PBS, it’s history that never happened. Case in point: the extremely relevant upcoming Ken Burns special on The Dust Bowl.

    Where else will people see these things?

  10. Couple of things: Sesame Street was the brainchild of Joan Ganz Cooney, not “Rosemary Cooney.” And Jeffrey Katzenberg was not a Disney lawyer, he was Chairman of The Walt Disney Studios (i.e., he ran the movie division). He went on to co-found DreamWorks and is now CEO of DreamWorks Animation.

    Anyway, yeah, Jim Henson, in 1989/90 was selling his company–Muppets, Fraggles, etc.–to Disney. He thought Disney was the perfect home for the Muppets, but not the Sesame Muppets, who he wanted to keep out of Disney’s hands. The deal fell through after his death in 1990. In 2000, EM.TV, a German company who was then-owner of the Henson Co., sold the Sesame Muppets to Sesame Workshop, as EM.TV was going through a severe financial crisis. In 2003, EM.TV sold the Henson Co. back to the Henson family, where it remains today. In 2004, the Henson Co. sold the rights to the Classic Muppets to Disney. So I guess it all worked out.

  11. When it comes to the subject matter of Sesame Street, I wonder why they must revisit the same subjects year after year teaching the same lessons to an audience that would be as entertained with the oldest episodes as they are with the newest without regard to the difference between the old television format and current HDTV format.

    Unless this is some kind of “soap opera” for tots, it seems that allot of money has been spent over the years for no good reason. Let’s face it, this series is in a rut! That is what progressives bring to the table every time, use our money to do whatever they please because they know better what to do with it than we do; arguing that it is money spent “for the children” and better that than war!

    Would we not be better off keeping our money, reducing the deficit or taxes and watching reruns with our children whom would not know the difference between old and new? If the Sesame Street producers are going to use the public’s purse, maybe it is time to create something new and different that would take the art of puppetry to the next level. What I know is that liberal institutions tend to stay the same, sucking from the public tit until all its operatives die or retire.

    I personally think that Public Television no longer serves the purpose for which it was originally created in that very different time when there were only 3 major channels and limited entertainment or educational options. That these public networks all have to raise additional funds is a sad statement for the decentralized production studios found in most large cities across the country and the major reason why there is never enough money to go around. It is past the time for a change!

  12. Great article! Why is there so little Sesami Street airing on Public TV? We almost never see it on our pubic station

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