Best of Antiques Roadshow

New Price: $9.99
Used Price: $5.00

Mentioned in:

Big Bird is History: Why We Fund PBS

- | 17

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.

That’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?

Surprise Me!