Magazine article Screen International

Abu Dhabi Media Summit: What the Big Bird Controversy Means for Children's Media

Magazine article Screen International

Abu Dhabi Media Summit: What the Big Bird Controversy Means for Children's Media

Article excerpt

Sesame Workshop CEO says children's learning should be non-partisan; defends public-private partnership but calls for more federal backing.

Move over, Bill Gates. Who would have thought Big Bird would emerge as the most buzzed-about media figure at this week's Abu Dhabi Media Summit?

The giant yellow avian icon, star of educational TV show Sesame Street, hit the political landscape last week when US Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney ruffled feathers by singling out the show for potential federal funding cuts.

"Big Bird is fine. Being 8'2" tall he's used to attention but not to this extent," said Melvin Ming, president and CEO of Sesame Workshop, who spoke to the Abu Dhabi conference via satellite from New York.

Ming did confirm that Sesame Workshop had requested the Obama campaign cease using images of Big Bird in advertising spots responding to Romney's comments during last week's debate. "As a non-profit organisation, we are non political, our practices and policies are that we don't allow our assets and characters to be used in political ads," he noted. "The use of Big Bird was in violation of our ethics, they [the Obama campaign] didn't have our permission and we didn't see how fair use was being applied here...This practice of ours is essential because we cannot let our Muppets do anything that if a child saw their teacher doing it they would be disappointed...Our goal is to reach every child in America with educational media, we don't contaminate that."

He continued: "Big Bird is a symbol of a generation in the US to have TV as that first school for preschoolers. Today in Amercia most of the preschoolers are out of the home by the age of 3 and in some school setting. We want to be where those children are, with the media that can help them grown and learn. The investment should be in young children being school ready and life ready, that's non partisan."

He noted that some facts had been skewed in the media since the debate, for instance that literacy programme The Electric Company gets five times more funding that Sesame Street. On the production of Sesame Street, he said: "We think the model for Sesame Street is a perfect model for private-public partnership... We have an economic model that allows us to be sustainable and not be wholly dependent on subsidies."

Where government subsidies are most crucial is for local public broadcasters to acquire programmes like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. "We need federal support for the connection of our content to children and our communities. We don't need it necessarily to produce Sesame Street. …

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