Big Bird is Proxy for a Golden Goose

FILE - This Aug. 30, 2009 file photo shows Big Bird, of the children's television show Sesame Street, in Los Angeles. Big Bir
FILE - This Aug. 30, 2009 file photo shows Big Bird, of the children's television show Sesame Street, in Los Angeles. Big Bird is endangered. Jim Lehrer lost control. And Mitt Romney crushed President Barack Obama. Those were the judgments rendered across Twitter and Facebook Wednesday during the first debate of the 2012 presidential contest. While millions turned on their televisions to watch the 90-minute showdown, a smaller but highly engaged subset took to social networks to discuss and score the debate as it unspooled in real time. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles, File)

If the threat weren't so serious, the flood of viral "Sesame Street" image mash-ups, Facebook posts and Tweets would be highly amusing. Public broadcasting supporters have been wonderfully inventive in slamming Mitt Romney's debate claim that he "loves Big Bird," but would end government public media subsidies.

I'm concerned, though, that the comic edge may obscure the truth: Big Bird is an avian proxy - what Romney really proposes is to kill a golden goose. Crippling public broadcasting would result in devastating cultural and educational losses, ridiculously disproportionate to the .012% of the budget that would be saved.

A bit of disclosure, doubling as bona fides. My organization - the American Center for Children and Media - provides industry-supported insight and professional development to TV and digital media companies - big and small, public and commercial, producers and distributors. In 2001-2, PBS Kids commissioned me to conduct a strategic study on roles and purposes for public service children's media in the digital age; today, I serve on a PBS Kids advisory board. I also chair the advisory board for the international children's television festival, PRIX JEUNESSE, giving me perspective on fundamental elements without which high-quality and educational children's media can't survive, in any country.

Worldwide, the best results for children occur when there is balance between public service and commercial television. Public TV then has to compete on quality and engagement, to sustain its audience without compromising its mission. Commercial TV can't afford to cede the young audience to noncommercial competitors, but also needs quality content to gain parental approval, particularly for the youngest viewers.

As a result, the US private sector often creates wonderfully effective and educational TV.
"Blue's Clues" revolutionized preschool TV for Nickelodeon, and today, "Doc McStuffins" is busting stereotypes. When I wrote my PBS Kids study, Nickelodeon's spinoff preschool channel Noggin was not just matching but outdoing PBS with "educational, non-commercial" programming. Still, if public broadcasting hadn't previously proved that early learning series can "do well by doing good," there would have been no impetus for any commercial service for the youngest audiences: toddlers don't have discretionary income.

And yet, it's ever thus: when tough economic times come and risk money dries up, high-quality, educational media - for which there is no magic formula for success - is always the first to be cut. TV designed for learning carries extensive research and development costs, and every set of learning goals demands a unique creative approach; it's safer and cheaper to regress to the mean and build on what's worked before.

Government support is always best targeted toward that which the private sector can't - or won't - do. There are few areas where this is more clear than with children's television. An educational TV service:

  • assesses learning needs as the blueprint for targeted commissioning, even if its means intriguing ideas may have to be put aside if they don't serve current gaps (a friend concerned about government "picking winners and losers" asked if PBS-commissioned series are inherently "better" than others' work; my answer was, "no, except in the sense that a hammer is 'better' than a screwdriver when you need to drive a nail");
  • narrowly targets programming for developmental ability and needs, rather than seeking the widest possible audience;
  • takes the long view (the new series "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" took six years to develop, following a PBS Kids advisory meeting that concluded more attention was needed to emotional development);
  • solidifies the curriculum and how it's embedded in its programming before looking for licensing and marketing opportunities (no one insisted to Fred Rogers that a train would sell better than a trolley, or that hoodies are more popular than sweaters);
  • develops and researches its content and context in cooperation with experts in the specific curriculum and the target age group;
  • uses multiple measures of success (my PBS study identified at least a half-dozen unique metrics beyond ratings); and
  • conducts rigorous summative testing of whether teaching goals have been met.

Conservative friends cite "Sesame Street's" financial successes, particularly in merchandising, as evidence that government funds are no longer needed. If Romney really meant that he would target only "Sesame Street," this might be true. Living up to its "Workshop" name (i.e., the mission is never completed), Sesame has plowed earnings back into production and invested in research on children, families and media. Even on tight budgets, the Workshop has always lived up to its principles and abandoned work in progress when the research shows it doesn't fulfill its goals.

If we could launch every children's TV series with the benefit of 43 years of hindsight - after all the pesky development work, production refinement, audience building, trust building, business development - we'd pick only winners and government support would be unnecessary. Government funding for public service media underwrites those indispensable projects that can't (at least not immediately) self support or that would lose their heart and soul in a single-bottom-line model, and keeps public media from being subject to the whims of investors ("Mr. Trump's Neighborhood," anyone?).

When it works best, government-supported children's television proves its worth and generates a success story that helps it become self-sufficient. This frees up funds to invest in new content, broadening and deepening the curriculum and bringing new voices to children's learning from TV.

Many think that Mitt Romney's mistake was citing Big Bird specifically. After all, we've shared so many emotional moments with this iconic character over more than four decades, most notably Mister Hooper's death. For me, Romney's mistake was deeper than that - his promise to defund public broadcasting demonstrates he knows the cost of everything and the value of nothing.