The Politics of Sesame Street

Sesame Street (and the public media landscape it represents) has become a hot issue in the Presential Campaign. Mitt Romney placed a target on Public Television (and Radio) by saying that they would be cut from the government teat. Big Bird and his fellow Muppets suddenly went viral, defending gtheir tax-payer supported existence. Yet, when President Barack Obama ran a campaign advertisement using the iconic children's television icon to attack his opponent's stance in an effort to sway undecided voters, the non-profit organization that runs Sesame Street objected to being used as a political tool.  It released a statement saying, “We have approved no campaign ads, and, as is our general practice, have requested that both campaigns remove Sesame Street characters and trademarks from their campaign materials.”

It's a shame that Oscar the Grouch, Super Grover, and the Cookie Monster have been caught in a partisan tug of war. As much as I enjoy (and have worked with) PBS and NPR, I have questioned their continuing relevance in the modern media landscape, while praising the shows they air. It's a debate worth having and one that public TV and radio supporters should not shy away from engaging with their detractors. 

If funds are cut, brand giants like Sesame Street will still survive. It's the bulk of other, less-mainstream public programming that will suffer, unable to find a home in the vastness of commercial television and radio. Commercial-free broadcast TV/radio or subscription-free cable/satellite alternatives just do not exist. Even PBS and NPR depend on patronage from wealthy corporations and foundations (and "viewers like you") to pay the bills. Critics have a point when they say that niche programs might find support via the private sector while continuing to serve their mission and reach their audiences. For example, Nick Jr. has no commercials and has arguably surpassed PBS in creating educational properties for the masses -- of course its parent company Viacom has profit in mind above all else.

It's a discussion that's overdue, but Sesame Street shouldn't be the poster child for the debate, and it shouldn't be used by the candidates as a talking point for their own political gain.