November 16th, 1998

The Letter K Isn't the Only Sponsor

By Scott Johnson
Hartford Courant

Not everyone likes the new neighbor.

With PBS cutting funding to the Children’s Television Workshop to the tune of $3 million this season, it seems CTW has shown a new, and some believe, unwelcome visitor to “Sesame Street” ---- its first sponsor.

When the first episode of Year 30 begins today , viewers will see a revamped opening, a single-theme story line, a new cast member and an Elmo segment ---- all followed by a 15-second message from the Discovery Zone.

This doesn’t sit well with Ralph Nader.

His new organization, Commercial Alert, which is aimed at fighting commercialism, argues that “Sesame Street” is exploiting impressionable children with its new $1 million deal with the playground manufacturer.

“It’s sad that ‘Sesame Street’ would deliver children to Discovery Zone,” says Gary Ruskin, a spokesman for Commercial Alert. “We don’t want CTW to finance ‘Sesame Street’ to the detriment of the children who watch it.”

The folks at “Sesame Street” disagree.

“It’s a very unfair criticism,” says Michael Loman, “Sesame Street” ‘s executive producer. “Nothing is changing about the show.  We’ve always had regional sponsors. These will simply be at the beginning and ending of the show.”

Many public television stations rely on local sponsors to help defray costs, but this is “Sesame Street” ‘s first national sponsor.

Children’s Television Workshop, the nonprofit company that produces “Sesame Street,” uses money from merchandising to fund its TV productions. “Sesame Street” gets two-thirds of its $20 million production budget from CTW, the other third was picked up by PBS.

But PBS decided to cut back after a decision by CTW to allow shows from its “Sesame Street” library to air on commercial television ---- the Viacom Network, which will be a joint effort with Nickelodeon to produce a network called Noggin. In an internal memo from PBS Senior Vice President Bob Ottenhoff, released by Commercial Alert, the executive writes that CTW insisted on altering the terms of the contract so that PBS no longer would have exclusive rights to “Sesame Street” reruns.

CTW’s agreement with Viacom diminished the value of “Sesame Street” for public television.

“We would have preferred to keep the library exclusive to PBS member stations,” says Tom Epstein, vice president of communications for PBS. “It’s a fast-changing environment and the [CTW] determined it’s in their interests to take the library elsewhere.

In his memo, Ottenhoff says PBS supports the underwriting of “Sesame Street” and will share in the profits, but adds that all underwriting of children’s programsmust meet PBS’s strict standards, which require messages targeted to children be limited to messages of support for public television.

Loman sees it differently.

“It’s a choice of doing or not doing something that’s been done on a local level [for some time]. It’s not like [the ads] are pitched at children. They’re pitched at adults.”

It is a difficult situation for PBS.

“Any thoughtful advocate for quality children’s television should devote their energies toward supporting funding for the only universally available, educational and noncommercial children’s program service,” Ottenhoff said in his memo. “The one provided by PBS member stations.”

Says Epstein, “We are very proud of the show. It’s an anchor of our children’s service, and we want to keep ‘Sesame Street’ on PBS.”

It seems the drama over who pays the bills at “Sesame Street” might just be in the first act. The Dicovery Zone deal only compensates for one-third of the lost money and CTW is still looking for more sponsors to cover the rest.


Add your own Comment