The unexpected attention to Sesame Street and Big Bird this past week has caused a lot of discussion in various places. It is not like we haven’t been here before.
But having public broadcasting become a prominent part of the current political season before an election is a bit more unusual. And it is also coming when a lot of public radio is in the midst of pledge week.
To put this into perspective, Brian Palmer at Slate.com has written a very good “Explainer” column on why Big Bird and Sesame Street are on PBS to begin with. There is even more background on this story, but the Captain Kangaroo connection is worth mentioning. CBS had the Captain back when NBC was busy with the Today Show
Palmer writes,“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.”
Around the same time that PBS was taking shape and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was coming into being, the Appalachian Community Service Network was also created (1972) in partnership between NASA and the Department of Health Education and Welfare. This channel became The Learning Channel in 1980. By 1991, TLC was bought by what is now Discovery Networks.
A current Internet meme is floating around that this network, TLC, founded by HEW and NASA, is now bringing us “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.” This is true. The network and the programs it carries are paid for, largely, by your cable or satellite fees.
Another cable channel from the 1970’s started as a non profit (like TLC) and is still non-profit, today. CSPAN was created as a service to be paid for by cable fees, with a 2011 budget of around $60 million. The board of directors features many representatives of the largest cable television companies.
So, the free market gave us CSPAN and Here Comes Honey Boo Boo. And the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS brought us Sesame Street and a lot more. If things had gone differently with NBC in the late 1960’s, who knows what might have happened?
This is the kind of remarkable mix that we have in media in the United States. I share all of this not to say what is right or wrong, but just what is.