Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Slate

October 11, 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
Slate
  • Allergies are the real midlife crisis

    One of the biggest mysteries is why the disease comes and goes, and then comes and goes again. People tend to experience intense allergies between the ages of 5 and 16, then get a couple of decades off before the symptoms return in the 30s, only to diminish around retirement age.

    April 16, 2014

  • treadmill-very-fast.jpg Tax deduction for a gym membership?

    April marks another tax season when millions of Americans will deduct expenses related to home ownership, children and education from their annual tax bill. These deductions exist because of their perceived value to society; they encourage behaviors that keep the wheels of the economy turning. So why shouldn't the tax code be revised to reward preventive health?

    April 15, 2014 1 Photo

  • Boston doctors can now prescribe you a bike

    The City of Boston this week is rolling out a new program that's whimsically known as "Prescribe-a-Bike." Part medicine, part welfare, the initiative allows doctors at Boston Medical Center to write "prescriptions" for low-income patients to get yearlong memberships to Hubway, the city's bike-share system, for only $5.

    April 11, 2014

  • A man with amnesia taught us how memories become personal

    Although not as celebrated as the late American amnesiac H.M., for my money K.C. taught us more important and poignant things about how memory works. He showed how we make memories personal and personally meaningful. He also had a heck of a life story.

    April 7, 2014

  • Investing more money in tornado research would be a disaster

    This week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would require National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funding to focus on improving forecasts of "high impact weather events" like tornadoes and hurricanes "for the protection of life and property and the enhancement of the national economy."

    April 3, 2014

  • Hate With Friends, the fun new Facebook tool

    Hating movies, earworms, conventions of grammar, clothing brands, diet fads - you get the twinkle of pleasure without the glob of guilt, or the cold brush of fear. A Coldplay song doesn't know you hate it.

    April 2, 2014

  • dog-sunglasses.jpg Do animals have a sense of humor?

    Right now, in a high-security research lab at Northwestern University's Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics, scientists are tickling rats. Their goal? To develop a pharmaceutical-grade happiness pill. But their efforts might also produce some of the best evidence yet that humor isn't something experienced exclusively by human beings.

    March 28, 2014 1 Photo

  • news_zuckerberg.jpg The logic of Facebook's multibillion-dollar shopping spree

    Yet again, Facebook has spent a gaudy sum of money to buy a hot startup. This time, it's virtual reality pioneer Oculus VR, at a purchase price of $2 billion. And don't be surprised if Mark Zuckerberg continues on his buying spree.

    March 27, 2014 1 Photo

  • 20140325-AMX-BARISTA251.jpg Coffee's third wave? The Apple to Starbucks' Microsoft

    Do you remember when Starbucks was cool? It opened in Seattle in the 1970s as a local specialty roaster, a trendy alternative to the prevailing generic swill. But the price of conquest is cachet. What was once novel — the warm décor, the gentle music, the faux-Italian lingo — has become banal. Today's coffee snobs would rather snort Sanka than set foot inside a Starbucks

    March 26, 2014 2 Photos

  • Why our brains just cannot let this mystery go

    Why should the story of Flight 370 grip us so? This mystery seems almost designed to arouse some fundamental parts of our brain.

    March 25, 2014