No Muppet Left Behind

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This morning, through arduous investigative work involving a toddler and a TV, I discovered that Sesame Street, one of the most successful children's shows in history, is brought to us partly by a No Child Left Behind grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The show itself, which is highly popular and generates lucrative licensing fees for its producers, presumably would exist without taxpayer support. And the PBS station that carries it in D.C. already runs ads from McDonald's and Beaches Family Resorts before and after the show, so there's no use pretending this is commercial-free TV. Under what rationale does Sesame Street on PBS rate a government grant, while Maisy on commercial-free Noggin (which my daughter lately prefers) does not? If that seems like comparing apples and oranges, how about Sesame Street on PBS (subsidized) vs. Sesame Street on Noggin (not subsidized)? Instead of using our money to air a show that manifestly does not need subsidies on channels that have no reason to exist (since everything they do is done as well or better on for-profit cable channels), why not use it to buy cable TV for families that can't afford it? It might not cost any less, but it would make a lot more sense.

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  1. If they fund it, the gov’t can then control it better.

    We’re not long off from having Grover talk about abstinance. Or Elmo explaining drug testing for 1st graders wanting to play T-ball in school.

    Look at what happened to poor Buster!

  2. Because cable TV is not a welfare program, it’s not a government entitlement, taxpayer money shouldn’t be paying for it (or PBS) and as Doc says, the government would then be in a more powerful position to control it – and us.

  3. These people at Sesame Street are raking in profits from licensing. What really kills me is that some of their licensed merchandise is really questionable. Stroll down your local Target’s women’s underwear aisles. Oscar the grouch on a thong? Cookie monster on a pair of bikinis? WTF?

    These guys are making hand over fist on this stuff, pull the plug.

    Live free, fight and kill your TV.

  4. …channels that have no reason to exist (since everything they do is done as well or better on for-profit cable channels)

    Gee-zuz Effing Kryste. I think that’s just about THE stupidest thing I’ve read in a H&R post since the last election. I’m totally on board with “no gubm’nt grants for PBS” and absolutely waving the “WE DON’T NEED THE FCC” banner. But holy fucking shit! The best TV produced, bar none, with second place lagging far far behind is PBS. There is noting that even comes close to shows like Nova, Frontline, American Experience, etc. etc. etc. Bookend commercials aside, the fact that the program is aired uninterrupted alone makes PBS five times better than the exact same program with commercial interruption. Goddamn Jake, putting that one sentence into print shows such poor judgment as to damage your integrity as an author.

  5. Why do the PBS stations insist on continuing the fiction that they are commercial free? I suppose for the same reason that NPR hosts will read their sponsor’s pitches while still insisting that they don’t run commercials.

  6. Remember, kids, cookie is a sometimes food.

  7. PBS airs lots (to me) of pointless cooking shows and kiddie crap. But FRONTLINE and NOVA are far better than the endless loop they show on The(Hitler)History Channel or The Learning Channel. Besides, PBS brought us Bob Ross, who taught us to get high and paint ‘happy trees.’

  8. I agree that some of what they air on PBS is much better than most of what you get on the for-profit cable ‘educational channels’. I also agree that once a PBS show becomes so popular that it sprouts its own cottage industry (Tickle Me Elmo, etc.), then it’s time to cut it loose and let it fly on its own and support itself (which it could do very successfully, no doubt.)
    But I’d still rather have my kids watch a show brought to us by the Letter M than one brought to us by the makers of Chocolate Coated Sugar Bombs.

  9. I would say that the DC routinely airs science shows on par with NOVA (which is fantastic). Frontline is also excellent and, although I would hesitate to equate the two, America Undercover does a pretty good job overall.

    Bob Ross is an American icon and should be placed on Mt. Rushmore. I’m sure if we could export his show to the Middle East, all those terrorists would stop bombing and start painting.

    Also, it’s sad to note that the current youth will probably grow up in a Rossless world.

  10. I think NBC, CBS and ABC better qualify these days as “channels that have no reason to exist.” If it wasn’t for sports programming, I might forget they still exist.

  11. I wish somebody would buy me cable TV.

    Oscar the grouch on a thong? Cookie monster on a pair of bikinis? WTF?

    Why, just the other day I returned my Ernie and Bert pasties to the local S-Mart, after they lost their tassles. Their merchandise is tasteless and cheap anymore.

  12. Jacob, Jacob, Jacob. You’re using “but it would make a lot more sense” and “government” in the same sentence again.

  13. Bob Ross stole that technique and the “happy little trees” from William Alexander. Which is fine, but the paint huffing fuzzball never acknowledged his debt. He always acted as if he invented the wet on wet method.

  14. “I also agree that once a PBS show becomes so popular that it sprouts its own cottage industry (Tickle Me Elmo, etc.), then it’s time to cut it loose and let it fly on its own and support itself (which it could do very successfully, no doubt.)”

    True, but I have to point out that educational shows like Sesame Street (and Electric Company and Zoom) probably would not have been green-lighted in the first place in a risk-averse for-profit. Off the top of my head, most of the stuff that gets aired on commercial stations is based on already-successful properties (like Maisy, although isn’t it spelled Maisie?) And how much of it is seriously “educational”?

    An interesting side note; I was watching a DVD of old Soviet animated cartoons from the 60’s with my wife. Afterwards my wife sighed that it was a pity we don’t have government-supported art in this country. I was kind of shocked until I realized that the cartoons in question were subversive (the only way you could get away with criticizing the Soviet experiment was in cartoon form), artistically diverse and creative, and hugely popular in their time.

  15. I don’t think programs like Sesame Street need still need public funding, but I do like that Corporation for Public Broadcasting provides funding for local public stations to produce documentaries of local interest that may or may not have a national audience–shows that might not get made otherwise. And public television provides a venue for such shows that people like me otherwise wouldn’t get to see. I’m thinking of shows like The Minnesota Landscape or the series on Appalacia.

  16. Serafina

    Don’t forget “Jesco: The Dancing Outlaw”

  17. I actually see some merit in having an entity around that operates on a non-profit basis, to supplement the offerings of the for-profit channels.

    I’m just not convinced that it needs to be publicly funded. Given that public funds are a tiny fraction of the PBS budget, couldn’t PBS continue to thrive if it were cut loose and handed over to a long-established charitable foundation or something like that?

  18. thoreau,

    Until you mentioned it, those brief acknowledgements to “the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation”, “the Pew Charitable Trust”, “Johnson & Johnson”, and “the Annenberg/CPB Project” never really made me think about the fact that these stations probably could get by without government funds, which would make them truly independent. And let’s not forget the pledge drives.

  19. I actually see some merit in having an entity around that operates on a non-profit basis, to supplement the offerings of the for-profit channels.

    I’m just not convinced that it needs to be publicly funded.

    I’d agree absolutely, Thoreau. Or even if enthusiasts refuse to give up the ineffable blessing of PBS being run by the federal government, why not just fund it out of its advertising revenues and donations?

  20. Nonprofits are the crux of civil society, which is essential to liberty. They don’t need public funding anymore than business needs public funding. Which is not at all. I could use some public funding, though, for a big-screen TV. C’mon, fellow taxpayers. I really need it! After we de-fund PBS, but before we buy cable for the poor, I want my big screen!

  21. The only caveat I’d put on PBS privatization is that it should be handed over to an organization that will make a good steward and maintain the current style of programming, and not necessarily to the highest bidder. I know that may seem like a contradiction to some, but I imagine there are plenty of companies that would love to own the rights to a popular children’s show like Sesame Street, yet I doubt that those companies would leave PBS’s programming the way it is at the moment.

    There’s nothing wrong with the profit motive, but the goal of privatization should be to preserve PBS without government funds. If some other company wants to offer the same style of programming but with ads, then I say go for it. Prove in the marketplace that it’s possible. But hand PBS over to somebody whose primary goal will be to preserve the style of programming without government funds. Given that the vast majority of the PBS budget comes from private donations, I think it should be quite feasible to hand it over to a charitable foundation or whatever and keep it going.

  22. As I think about it, I probably WOULD offer PBS to the highest bidder, in a way:

    If I were heading the government commission charged with privatizing PBS, I’d look at the individuals, foundations, companies, and other private sector entities that have given the most to PBS over the past 10 years (in inflation-adjusted dollars). I’d start with the biggest donors and approach them about taking outright ownership. They’d sign a contract agreeing to maintain essential aspects of the format, and in exchange the federal subsidy would be tapered over 4 years (current amount in year 1, 75% in year 2, 50% in year 3, 25% in year 4, nada after that). If they violated those terms the federal subsidy would be completely yanked early.

    If no major donor wanted outright ownership, I’d offer the donors shares in CPB in proportion to their donations.

    Or something like that. The key point is that I’d identify those who have invested the most in PBS over the years and look at devolving control to them.

  23. I don’t think you would need to “auction it off”. The Corporation is already there. If they can cast off public funding there’s no need for them to change hands or change in any other way, is there?

  24. Mark-

    True, but I don’t know who owns the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, or who appoints the Board of Directors. I know that at least some of the Directors are political appointees, but I don’t know if there are any representatives of the private sector.

    In any case, I’m sure that a mechanism could be devised for ending public funding and becoming an independent entity that preserves the format of PBS with private funds. And I assume that some of the major private donors could be persuaded to play a role in the process.

  25. As I think about it, some people on the left have become upset of late over the Bush administration’s (real or alleged) mishandling of PBS. While I’m never a fan of “things have to get worse so they can get better”, I wonder if this (real or alleged) problem might be used to persuade PBS fans on the left that the format and goals of PBS would be better served by private donations and independence from the government.

    Then again, ending public funding of PBS would require support from the right as well as the left (given that the GOP controls Congress and the White House). And while Newt Gingrich and his merry band of would-be revolutionaries were (supposedly) ready to sing “Bye Bye Big Bird”, the current breed of Republican leaders (the ones who arranged for Jeff Gannon to lob softballs and paid Armstrong Williams to say what they want him to say) might be less willing to relinquish control over a media outlet.

    Well, in the grand scheme of things the PBS subsidy is still pretty low on my list, just because of the paltry sums involved. To me the biggest significance of PBS privatization is that it would demonstrate that a program that liberals like can be sustained by private funds. More of an object lesson than a major budget cut.

  26. Jesco was some fine documentary film-making. “I got me a double super buzz goin’ on!”

  27. To me the biggest significance of PBS privatization is that it would demonstrate that a program that liberals like can be sustained by private funds.

    How about we demonstrate that a program that liberals like can be shut down and put out of business, never to spend again?

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