The antics of cartoon critters aren’t meant to be morality tales. But the character of “Sesame Street” embraced lessons for life: Fairness, tolerance, sharing, patience and Miss Piggy made children laugh.
If a young boy could not find a Scout troop in Harlem in 1969, he could turn on a television set, channel surf to PBS and Big Bird would be his stand-in character-builder for an hour every day.
With a New York neighborhood backdrop, “Sesame Street” gave a kid who knew the territory a feeling of being at home in the company of Asian and Hispanic children, playing parts on TV. In rural South Dakota, a child who had never seen a shiny cap of black hair on a Japanese schoolmate, (because there were no Japanese school mates) watched diversity and friendship hold hands on “Sesame Street.”
Today, grouchy Muppets and Big Bird still sing alphabet songs on PBS. They remind children to look out for the little guy and settle differences in a kindly manner.
When presidential candidate Mitt Romney labeled PBS as expendable in a plan to reign in federal spending, a little research turned up the cost. Government support of public television amounts to one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget.
The return on that money is worth considering. Eighty-one percent of our sea-to-shining-sea children ages 2-8 watch public television. Over 90 percent of grown-up Americans, (who cut their teeth on “Sesame Street”) also tune in.
I am checking off the days until Masterpiece Theatre’s “Downton Abbey” returns, and most nights, I am one in an audience of PBS Evening News followers.
In the hour between sunset and supper, I once heard poet Wyatt Putney read words, achingly somber, defining his feelings as he watched a series of photographs and names appear on his TV screen, the PBS News’ repeated eulogy to our own, killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I have seen reports on the plight of this country’s failing schools and watched cool-headed economists disagree on the cause of jobs, lost. I’ve heard stories from homeowners in Florida who live in neighborhoods of foreclosures.
PBS Evening News broadcasts have brought me shy novelists reading their work and inner city children playing in school orchestras. I’ve observed masters of the Internet explaining the effect of social media on politics.
But Romney’s threat still begs the question: Is public television’s array of programs, informative, armed with cultural heft and child-friendly, worth the cost of one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget’s tally?
Well, there’s this. With 81 percent of our children, 2-8, tuning in to PBS every day, many living in rural areas, growing up in places where there are no symphonies or libraries, educational programming may be the only game in town re-enforcing positive transforming experiences.
Always, there is a chance a child in a rough-and-tumble world, over which he has no control, watches Big Bird and the Muppets on “Sesame Street” as they accept differences in their neighbors’ skin colors. Seeing what is possible, a young life could well decide racial slurs on the playground are not Golden Rule material.
As for grown-ups, the 91 percent of Americans who tune in to PBS are polarized over everything from evolution to affirmative action, but, on occasion, still choose a news program free from inflammatory rhetoric or political bias. That’s nothing short of a miracle.
Public television programming costs each of us about $1.35 a year, but, to a latchkey child, faced with solitary afternoons, the value of having a goofy, nine-foot, bright yellow Big Bird as companion and “Sesame Street” friend? Priceless!
Judy Elliott is an award-winning columnist from Marietta.