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PBS Ombudsman

Sesame Street Responds

In last week's Ombudsman's Column, I posted e-mails from some viewers who were upset with an episode of the venerable children's program Sesame Street that had aired on Oct. 29 and dealt with one of the program's colorful creations, the Grouch News Network. It included a character who said the network wasn't grouchy enough and threatens to switch to "Pox News," adding "now there's a trashy news show." I added my comments, which also were critical. The episode was not a new one. It had aired a number of times before but this time drew noticeable viewer comment.

The column did not include comment from program officials and that was an omission on my part. I did e-mail a question to the producers a day before the column was posted, asking why Pox News was chosen, but did not get a response. I should have waited a bit longer. In any event, Sesame Street clearly deserves a say in this and here it is:

A Tempest in a Trash Can?

"On behalf of Sesame Workshop and the producers of 'Sesame Street,' I wanted to clear up a misunderstanding about our Grouch News Network segment that re-ran on October 29. I realize this may have drawn more attention because of the recent dust-up between Fox News and the White House, but I assure you that no political comment or comment about Fox News, subtle or overt, was intended!

"First, the show was first aired in Season 38, which premiered in August 2007. That means it was written in the fall of 2006 — long before the Fox-Obama controversy, even before Obama was President. The whole segment was a parody of CNN (called GNN) or the 'Grouch News Network.' Children who watch Sesame Street (and adults who remember what it felt like to be a kid watching Sesame Street) know that Oscar the Grouch is a contrarian. He lives in a trash can and loves everything 'yucky,' and 'disgustin.' For a Grouch, 'Trashy' is high praise! Not only would child-viewers be unlikely to connect 'Pox News' to Fox News, in the context of this scene, they would understand the characters to be saying that 'Pox News' is better than 'GNN.'

"As for your comment that producers would have to be 'anesthetized' not to assume that many parents would hear this as a shot at Fox News, it misses the point. The writers expected that adult viewers would make the connection to Fox News as well as the connection to CNN. This was equal-opportunity parody — Oscar always tries to offend everybody! In the full story, Oscar keeps trying to find angry, frustrated and grimy stories, but each time he finds someone feeling bad, they soon look on the bright side and cheer up. The curriculum for that episode was recognizing emotions.

"Writing on two levels, addressing young children with age-appropriate curriculum and adults with humor, is a trademark of Sesame Street that has kept the show popular for 40 years. Jim Henson, Jon Stone, Frank Oz and others set a witty and silly tone for Sesame Street that our current writers work to maintain despite the demands of political correctness. Your readers might also be interested in why we have that grumpy, grouchy, contrarian Oscar on the show. His curriculum purpose is to teach differing perspectives — an important life skill where children learn that it takes all kinds of people to make a world. Watching Oscar shows kids that you can listen to someone with a very different world view, and even be friends with them, without losing your own perspective.

"Maybe we should all take another look?"

Miranda Barry
EVP, Creative
Sesame Workshop

More 'Street' Letters

Since last week's column appeared, a couple of hundred additional e-mails landed in my mailbox, the overwhelming majority of them critical of the segment involving "Pox News" and in the same vein as the original handful of letters that I published.

But there were also several in recent days that took a different view and, as one viewer asked, please publish some of those letters. Here are some of them.

"Leave What Was Good, Good"

I hope you will post emails from viewers who were not offended by the "Pox News" reference. It is only fair. You seem to have posted only those who did not like it. I hope to see others who are not so sensitive respond to this issue.

Jude Vasconcellos, Rutherford, CA

You should be ashamed of yourself for giving in to the lunatic fringe of the far right by stating that broadcasters shouldn't have given in to the skit. Think about this for a second. This is a parody on a children's show, and people are getting upset over it. If you don't want your kids to watch a certain show, change the channel. And think about what this says about the mentality of conservatives. Anytime they see a slight, whether real or imagined, they go into overdrive and start accusing people of a liberal bias when that may not have even been the intention. Find something to do instead of getting your panties in a wad over something this trivial!

H.H., Monroe, LA

I just wanted to say that PBS has always been and always will be a GREAT station with WONDERFUL programming . . . I grew up watching many of the children's shows and sesame street is one of the best. I find it rather silly that adults could find something wrong in the skit about POX news and Oscar the Grouch. I could see the humor in this without associating it with FOX news. After all it was sesame street that helped to teach me the difference between the letter F and the letter P. Sesame Street is educational and funny and my children grew up watching it as well. Thank you PBS for all the wonderful years of learning through all your great shows.

Peggy Thompson, Oshkosh, WI

The debate over the Sesame Street "Pox News" skit is ridiculous. A sense of humor goes a long way for both adults and children — and these bloggers seem to have lost theirs. Did the adults have to explain to these children why they were so offended by the "Pox News" bit? Likely. Isn't it possible that youngsters can see the humor in something that has become a standard media joke — which is as old as political satire . . . left vs. right?

Laura Amrhein, Little Rock, AR

You are all a bunch of losers. Get on with your lives and leave what was good, good.

Queens, NY

Please do not censor Sesame Street. I notice the letters you received were lop-sided. The letter writers did not complain that the character that lives IN the garbage can — who is also the host (Oscar) of the show in the skit — called the other news channel in the skit, GNN "all grouchy, all disgustin', all yucky." Yet, all the letter writers claim they heard Fox instead of Pox called "trashy."

My point: if Sesame Street was being political — they nailed both the left and the right. Thus, NO bias and no one from Sesame Street is trying to indoctrinate children or get to parents through the children that watch Sesame Street. I wish you would have underscored that fact a little more in your reply without your attempt at agreeing that Sesame Street tried to indoctrinate kids and get to parents through those kids. What I found evident in the letters you posted from the letter writers is they all shared a sense of paranoia.

If parents don't like GNN being called "all grouchy, all disgustin', all yucky" and/or Fox instead of Pox called "trashy" they have two choices, cringe and continue to let your child watch or turn off the show. Please do not censor shows . . . please. Not only is that un-American it would play into the hands of the paranoid people who falsely look at education and diversity as indoctrination.

Cynthia Proffitt, Louisville, KY

Being a conservative Republican I feel I can state this. I just listened to the Grouch Pox news skit, and actually, it was not offensive, both Oscar and the viewer, live in trash cans, that is their home. So to say Pox News is a "trashy" network meant it is a "home" network . . . was it necessary, no. Clever yes.

Hilton Head, SC

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