Tonawanda News

Features

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
Features
  • sig - critter companions RGB CRITTER COMPANIONS: Gardening with chickens

    There is no need to get mad as a wet hen if you want to juggle flourishing flower beds, viable vegetable gardens and free-range chickens.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • sig - critter companions RGB CRITTER COMPANIONS: Let's unlabel our pets

    Several weeks ago, I mentioned how we should not use labels. I said that labels are circular, meaning that if we use them we just will end up where we started. An example of a label is saying that “all scarlet macaws are vindictive” or “all pit bulls are aggressive.”

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • SUN LIFE Volunteers honored 1 040614.jpg Women Who Move the City (and beyond)

    April 7, 2014 2 Photos

  • SUN LIFE POUND 1040614j jpg.jpg Rock n' roll fitness

    April 7, 2014 1 Photo

  • sig - crib notes RGB Enough of this winter -- it's time for spring

    Midway through separating the bits of dog food from the shredded paper towel pieces on the saturated bed sheet that had been strewn across the dining-room table, I finally realized I’d had enough.

    April 7, 2014 1 Photo

  • sig - critter companions RGB Dear readers, it's me, Kenny

    I have bad knees. I have been told to blame my grandmother. I have also been told to blame her for my love of animals. Today, we celebrate the 100th Critter Companions column.

    April 7, 2014 1 Photo

  • SUN LIFE mummies 1 033014.jpg 'Mummies of the World' exhibit arrives in Buffalo

    As visitors arrived for the recent NCAA basketball tournament games in Buffalo, a much older group of visitors arrived via motorcade at the Buffalo Museum of Science — but these newcomers to the Queen City wouldn’t be seeking out a place to have a beer between games or where to find the region’s best chicken wings.

    March 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • sig - double trouble RGB Years later, still spending sunny days on Sesame Street

    I always knew we’d hit “the Elmo years.”

    Going into parenthood, it seemed like a given. Both my husband and I  were “Sesame Street” fans from childhood ourselves, and we were happy enough to pass it on to a new generation. And we knew, having friends with children of the applicable age, that in this day and age “Sesame Street” equalled Elmo, the squeaky-voiced “furry red menace” (thus dubbed by Oscar the Grouch) of parents everywhere.

    March 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • SUN LIFE Local Restaurant Week 2 033014.jpg Back for another bite

    As spring finally starts to unfold in Western New York, residents are likely eager to get out of their houses — and organizers of Local Restaurant Week hope they’ll consider eating out as they do that.

    March 31, 2014 1 Photo

  • Wineries invite visitors to take a Taste of the Trail

    If one weekend of food and wine pairings is a good thing, two weekends of food and wine pairings must be even better.

    For the first time, the Taste of the Trail event, which takes place Friday through April 6 and April 11 to 13 on the Niagara Wine Trail, will be split into two weekends, with half the trail’s wineries taking part the first weekend and half the second, said Elizabeth Maute, wine trail coordinator.

    March 31, 2014