I think we can all agree that if there was anyone who could use a hug from Elmo, it's Sen. Jim DeMint. Unfortunately he-who-is-drunk-on-tea is pointing his budget pitchfork at Sesame Street and "the Muppet lobby," arguing that public television is unfairly pulling at the heartstrings of legislators in order to preserve funding.
A few months ago, I was surprised to find my second grader watching a brief segment on PBS about the consequences of misbehaving in the classroom. With all the fartfests that pass for kids programming these days, it was a pleasant reminder that there was a place on the TV dial where he could learn more than how to "toot" louder than his classmates. As a parent who has labored to explain sight words and how to count, I've found a good teaching buddy in public television.
Now, I understand that state and federal budgets are strained these days. And, as a 30-something who sees nothing wrong with reforming entitlements like Social Security, I can't ignore the need to put a similarly creative and/or skeptical eye on public broadcasting. But DeMint and his Tea Party compadres are not interested in having a debate about the merits of public TV, and they're definitely not offering alternatives to PBS programming. These conservatives never liked public TV in the first place, and they're using these tough economic times as an excuse chase it off the air.
When presenting her State of the State last month, Gov. Nikki Haley didn't argue for a debate on public television. She simply said it had to go. Meanwhile, DeMint's grumpy ol' rant last week against "a Muppet revolt" suggests that opponents of public television desperately want to ignore one very significant segment of PBS's audience: children.
Sen. DeMint was apparently angered by the appearance of Elmo, Big Bird, and Arthur the Aardvark on Capital Hill, arguing that PBS executives were using the characters to tug at the heartstrings of legislators. Of course, what actually upsets DeMint is that the Muppets are pretty effective at representing someone else: four-year-olds. The senator railed against a proposed $451 million budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. "To put that in perspective, it would take Count Von Count more than 42 years to count the 451 million, one 'Ah!Ah!Ah!' dollar at a time," DeMint said. Sir, Count Von Count isn't counting for executives at CPB. He's counting to get preschoolers excited about numbers.
While DeMint may be trying to imitate The Muppet Show's two balcony-bound curmudgeons, Waldorf and Statler, other legislators see his money-pit argument as false on its face. So, in the same column, DeMint tries to argue that Sesame Street is a booming enterprise with lucrative merchandising opportunities, making $211 million in toy sales between 2003 and 2008. It's important to note that the $211 isn't going into a wealthy shareholder's pocket. It's going back to a nonprofit organization helping to educate children.
Then there is DeMint's argument that Sesame Street is so successful that it could easily survive in the private sector. Frankly, Sesame Street isn't the show I'm worried about. It's the rest of the schedule that concerns me, including such shows as Arthur, WordGirl, and Wild Kratts. What's available in the family-friendly private sector? There's a That '70s Show block on ABC Family. Maybe there will be a really good pot-circle segment. And Nickelodeon has Big Time Rush. We watched the pilot until the kids started hitting parked cars with shopping carts. And let us not forget that the Disney Channel has Hannah Montana. If you're not familiar with that show starring Miley Cyrus, it's the one her father Billy Ray recently blamed for ruining his family and setting his daughter on a path to smoking salvia out of a bong. In the spirit of Waldorf and Statler, I'd argue there is nothing like good educational programming, and these programs are nothing like that.
Elmo isn't on Capital Hill to give you a hug Sen. DeMint. He's there to save something that is increasingly hard to find on kids television: quality.