Stillwater News Press

Our World

October 12, 2012

Slate's Explainer: Why isn't Big Bird on a major network?

Big Bird has emerged as the surprise star of the 2012 campaign. Mitt Romney says he likes Big Bird but wants to cut federal funding to PBS, while the big yellow bird has appeared in an ad made by President Obama's campaign. Why is "Sesame Street" on public television, anyway?

Because the networks turned it down. In 1967, a couple of years before the first episode of "Sesame Street" aired on PBS, one of the co-founders of the Children's Television Workshop pitched the concept to executives at NBC and CBS. They both passed on the opportunity, as did Time-Life Broadcasting and Westinghouse. The problem wasn't that the show was for children: Captain Kangaroo had already been a modest success on CBS for 12 years, and the networks had offered periodic programming for preschoolers. But Children's Television Workshop was a somewhat revolutionary idea in 1967. It had a strongly academic bent, drawing together child psychiatrists and child-development researchers from the ivory tower in a way that suggested profit wasn't their motivation. Its executives also refused to allow commercials to interrupt the program, although they were open to ads at the beginning and end. The Children's Television Workshop leadership also insisted that the show focus on disadvantaged urban kids, rejecting calls from television producers that they broaden the target demographic to all preschool children.

PBS desperately needed a winner in the late 1960s and was willing to take a chance. Some PBS programming was so poor that The New York Times television critic noted, "congressmen could scarcely be blamed for wondering if a huge permanent investment in noncommercial video is warranted." "Sesame Street" was exactly the kind of innovative show that could change the narrative about public broadcasting.

It's an odd quirk of history that Bert and Ernie's first-ever television appearance came not on PBS, but in a preview on NBC. And commercialism was the first thing viewers saw: A Muppet noted that Xerox had sponsored the preview, in a move that infuriated some "Sesame Street" executives.

"Sesame Street" has always had an uncomfortable relationship with money. After the show became a smash success, producers worried that the foundations that paid to get the show off the ground would expect it to sustain itself. Some executives adamantly opposed any attempt at merchandising. Even Jim Henson, who was already making money merchandising his comedic Muppets, opposed doing the same with more the educational "Sesame Street" characters. Eventually, however, the prospect of becoming a self-financing model convinced most of the creators that Oscar the Grouch dolls wouldn't tarnish the program.

     

1
Text Only | Photo Reprints
Our World
Must Read
Buy & Share Photos
NewsPress e-Edition
NewsPress Specials
AP Video
Cat Fans Lap Up Feline Film Festival Raw: Lawmakers Scuffle in Ukraine's Parliament The Rock Finds His Inner 'Hercules' Michigan Plant's Goal: Flower and Die Raw: MH17 Passenger Remains in Kharkiv, Ukraine Raw: Israel Hits Gaza Targets, Destroys Mosques ShowBiz Minute: Hoffman, Oberst, Box Office WWII Vet Gets Medals, 70 Years Late Raw: Israel Bombs Multiple Targets in Gaza Veteran Creates Job During High Unemployment Raw: Cargo Craft Undocks From Space Station Widow: Jury Sent Big Tobacco a $23B Message New Orleans Plans to Recycle Cigarette Butts UN Security Council Calls for MH 17 Crash Probe Obama Bestows Medal of Honor on NH Veteran Texas Sending National Guard Troops to Border Hopkins to Pay $190M After Pelvic Exams Taped Foxx Cites Washington 'Circus Mirror' NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong
Stocks
NDN Video
Samsung Pre-Trolls The IPhone 6 With New Ad Prince George Turns 1 and is Already a Trendsetter Guilty Dog Apologizes to Baby for Stealing Her Toy Train Collides With Semi Truck Carrying Lighter Fluid Kanye West Tells-All on Wedding in "GQ" Interview Tony Dungy Weighs in on Michael Sam Scarlett Johansson Set To Marry In August New Star Wars Episode XII X-Wing Revealed Obama: Putin must push separatists to aid MH17 probe Michigan inmates no longer allowed to wear orange due to 'OITNB' Adam Levine Ties the Knot Sebastian The Ibis Walks Beautiful Bride Down The Aisle | ACC Must See Moment NASA Ceremony Honors Moon Walker Neil Armstrong Faces of Souls Lost in Malaysian Plane Crash 105-year-old woman throws first pitch Man Creates Spreadsheet of Wife's Reasons for Turning Down Sex 'Weird Al' Is Wowed by Album's Success Rory McIlroy struggles, surges, wins British Open NOW TRENDING: Real life Pac-Man Explosions as hot air balloon crashes in Clinton