Driving through Chick-fil-A to get a kid’s meal for my daughter today, the "toy" that came with the chicken nuggets was a CD-Rom from the public-TV kids’ show Between the Lions. The logos for Boston PBS superstation WGBH and Mississippi Public Broadcasting were right on the CD case.
This underlines how blurry the line is between public television and private-sector merchandising. On Thursday, Washington Post TV writer Lisa de Moraes reported from Pasadena that "PBS President Paula Kerger opened her Q&A at Winter TV Press Tour 2010 by blasting commercial broadcasters" for failing to educate children.
DeMoraes was skeptical enough to include how the PBS boss actually faced challenging questions from a troublesome "critic" on the incessant merchandising of public-broadcasting kids’ shows like Sesame Street (once estimated by the Licensing Letter to offer 1,000 licensed products.) This is terrific:
When children go to access the networks' content for kids online, "the lines between commerce and content are blurred beyond recognition," she added.
"At PBS we remain firm in our conviction that media should be used to serve kids and not to sell to them," Kerger said.
A "great body of research demonstrates that children under the age of 6 or 8 years old really don't recognize the difference between advertisement and content," she warned.
But one critic asked her if, when she criticized other kids' sites for trying to sell things to them, "you are distinguishing between their selling outside products to kids" and PBS's Sesame Street and SuperWhy! toys, among other products PBS is involved in marketing to kids.
"We're not selling that on our Web site," Kerger began.
"But still, all those programs are very heavily commodified for children, aren't they?" the critic asked.
"Our programs -- the programs came first, and the products or the toys -- many of which are educational toys -- were developed as a way to extend the programs in other ways, in other platforms, including toys. That's different from many commercial vendors, which actually start with the toys and then back into the programs."
No word on whether kids younger than 6 or 8 understand that distinction.
The "critic" is probably a lefty who really wants public television to be free of the "stain" of commercialism. But in any event, it's a fantastic exception to the rule that PBS is usually, invincibly arrogant about the moral superiority of its educational mission.
The outrage for conservatives here is twofold:
1. The producers of public television programs can make millions by using the educational halo over its programs to sell everything from toys to cans of premade pasta (Sesame Street again) with its stamp on it. We've called this phenomenon "nonprofiteering."
2. Those millions are in no way "taxed" or required to be sent back in part to the PBS empire to relieve the taxpayers of the costs of PBS production and station-operation costs. It could help slim down the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But it's not. So when liberals get upset over TARP-supported banks handing out millions, tell them about Sesame Workshop.
PS: The Chick-fil-A CD also had this legal lingo in small print:
"BETWEEN THE LIONS is produced by WGBH Boston, Sirius Thinking Ltd., and Mississippi Public Broadcasting. BETWEEN THE LIONS is funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a cooperative agreement from the U.S. Department of Education Ready to Learn grant, and by the Barksdale Reading Institute. National corporate funding is proved by Chick-fil-A, Inc."