Sunday, November 8, 2009

Taking the high road vs. giving in

As America gets ready to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the first airing of Sesame Street on Tuesday, a PR "issue" has erupted around a two-year-old episode of the show, a repeat of which was aired two weeks ago.

In the episode, which my three-year-old has given me occasion to enjoy many times, Oscar the Grouch is the anchor of GNN (Grouch News Network), in a parody of CNN. Anderson Cooper guest stars as a reporter for GNN, and does an interview with grouch muppets Dan Rather-Not and Walter Cranky.

Is this a thinly-veiled suggestion that CNN is too negative? Or an attack on the personalities of Dan Rather and Walter Cronkite? I don't think so (and neither, apparently, does Anderson Cooper). Rather (har har), I think they were chosen because their names provided an opportunity for a fun parody, which would entertain children while providing parents with something to keep them from going insane (a characteristic that keeps parents favouring Sesame Street over, say, the Teletubbies).

I put these parodies in the same category with other Sesame Street bits I've enjoyed: "Desperate Houseplants," "Meal or No Meal," "Law & Order: Special Letters Unit."

But one line uttered by a member of GNN's grouchy audience in the repeat episode has apparently gotten some Fox News fans up in arms.

According to an article on, both the Fox News and the PBS websites received emails from viewers who said they had heard the character say she was switching to "Fox News - now there's a trashy news show."

When I first saw the show, I heard "Pox News," and have heard "Pox News" every time since. When contacted by Fox News, according to the story on its website, "Sesame Workshop Vice President of Corporate Communications Ellen Lewis told that the show was merely a parody and would never mention Fox News directly." A script from the show reportedly shows the line to be "Pox News," as does the closed-captioning.

Let's face it: in the 24-hour news business, there aren't that many well-known brands to work with. "CNN" easily becomes "GNN," "Fox" easily becomes "Pox;" but what could you do with "MSNBC" to make it grouchy-sounding?

I think Ms. Lewis' response was reasonable (and I would hope/assume it included an expression of regret that some viewers might have misheard the line and been offended).

The Ombudsman for PBS, however, took a different approach, saying in his statement on the matter that
"I don't know what was in the head of the producers, but my guess is that this was one of those parodies that was too good to resist. But it should have been resisted. Broadcasters can tell parents whatever they think of Fox or any other network, but you shouldn't do it through the kids."
I'm certain that the White House's recent skirmishes with Fox News have something to do with this sensitivity; but this show was produced a year before the current administration was even elected (though Fox News' coverage of the presidential election campaign may well have been a topic of interest at that time). I'm surprised that the PBS Ombudsman would have hung the Sesame Street producers out to dry like that - especially given that Sesame Street has been doing parodies of popular shows and famous people for four decades (remember Monsterpiece Theatre with Alistair Cookie?).

In the opening scene of "Desperate Houseplants" one potted plant mourns "I can't take it anymore! I've lost my bloom!" - and I don't remember any of the Desperate Housewives cast being offended by it.

Parents across the political spectrum seem to agree that Sesame Street provides a great example for our children to see and admire... but for some, that's only true for as long as it parodies everyone except Fox News.

There's taking the high road and apologizing for having offended someone; then, there's giving credibility to irrational claims. An organization should always apologize for having offended - even when the offense wasn't intentional - but I don't think it should give credence to a baseless charge.

While that approach may take care of the complaints in the short term, I'd expect the opposite to be true in the long term. Having essentially agreed that Sesame Street's producers were purposely trying to turn pre-schoolers against Fox News (?!), PBS' Ombudsman should now expect Sesame Street to be watched far more closely for perceived slights against the institutions and voices of the "Right."

Sesame Street opens its 40th season on Tuesday with a guest appearance from... uh oh... Michelle Obama.


  1. When I was younger, you could not pull me away from watching Sesame Street, and now learning they have parodies like "Desperate Houseplants," and "Law & Order: Special Letters Unit, I may need to start watching again - those are too funny!

  2. I think they're a riot! Parents of little people spend so much time talking baby talk, reading baby books and watching baby shows that they sometimes really yearn for some grown-up humour during the day. These sketches give us a little chuckle without ever compromising their educational objectives.