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The Ombudsman Column

Messing With the Media

Here are some additional thoughts on the great Katy Perry-Elmo caper that will never be seen on Sesame Street but which has been seen by millions of people on YouTube and countless online links, and which has been reported on in scores of newspapers, magazines, television networks and blogs around the world, not to mention Saturday Night Live.

When I first wrote about this in the Sept. 24 column I started out asking four questions that came to my mind after the program announced: "In light of the feedback we've received [from some viewers and parents] on the Katy Perry music video which was released on YouTube only, we have decided we will not air the segment on the television broadcast of Sesame Street, which is aimed at preschoolers."

I wondered at the time if the producers of the famed PBS children's program had 1) done the right thing, 2) got weak-kneed after the first round of criticism, 3) were simply the best PR people in the world, or 4) just messed up. I think now that the answer is 3; this was, in my view, public relations that worked big time, but at a price.

The price, in my opinion, is that the episode leaves me with a sense of manipulation of the public and the press, to some extent. PBS and Sesame Street are linked at the hip, and have been for 41 successful years. Both are iconic names in broadcasting. The program is produced for PBS, which distributes it, by Sesame Workshop. Many of the reports about the cancellation naturally mentioned Sesame Street as a PBS program. But PBS had nothing to do with this video and the ensuing brouhaha, although maybe it should have.

If you've been following this, or even just newly interested, Perry appears wearing a relatively low-cut outfit and does a song number with Elmo. Sesame Street produced the video and loaded it to its channel on YouTube, and also made it available to www.katyperry.com so her "fans will still be able to view" it. The protesting parents didn't like it and apparently let Sesame Street know; hence the decision not to air the segment. Some wrote to me as well.

All of this tremendous publicity and controversy about this would-be segment on Sesame Street took place, conveniently, just as the 41st season was about to get underway.

When I first asked the Workshop about the critical comments I was receiving, Philip Toscano of the corporate communications office wrote back: "Given the premiere of Sesame Street's 41st season this Monday, September 27th, wanted to make you aware that Sesame Street Workshop, producers of the series, have chosen not to include a scheduled appearance by Katy Perry in the PBS broadcast." It also included a fuller press statement "about this change in content."

You could read the initial Sesame Street statement as suggesting that the Perry segment had been pulled from the premier show or one coming soon in the new season. There was no date for when the segment was scheduled in any of the statements, and many of the reports said it would be during the forthcoming season and some said it was planned for around New Year's. When I asked today when, exactly, she was supposed to appear, Ellen Lewis, vice-president for corporate communications at Sesame Workshop, said "her segment was scheduled to air on Dec. 30th."

Linda Simensky, PBS vice-president for children's programming at PBS headquarters, told me that the first PBS officials heard about Katy Perry and Sesame Street was when the video, controversy and cancellation went public. She said Sesame Street had not made PBS aware of this would-be segment. The broadcasts are taped and shipped to PBS well in advance of airing, normally about six weeks ahead, and that thus far Sesame Street had delivered 24 out of 44 episodes for season 41 and none of them contained the Perry segment and therefore nothing had been pulled from those shows.

Since there had been no discussion of Perry's would-be appearance with PBS before the fact, the after-the-fact public controversy, with the inevitable linking of PBS and Sesame Street in press accounts, also made PBS appear to be out of the loop on such matters.

In a way, there is something to that because Sesame Street is so well-known and respected, has such a long history with PBS, and is so creative in its approach to programming, that it has sort of been "grandfathered," as Simensky put it, and its programs are not normally reviewed beforehand. On the other hand, one would think that smart and experienced producers at Sesame Street had to know this segment would cause some problems and would have alerted PBS.

In the grand scheme of things, this is a trivial one-day-wonder episode in the entertainment business. Yet it involves two very famous names, PBS and Sesame Street, that cruise on high levels of public trust. Maybe this happened just the way Sesame Street explains it. But my sense of smell is skeptical. It has the odor of a segment that was never really meant to be, that was quickly made available on video three months before it was supposed to be on the program, and was very valuable in attracting lots of publicity to the start of a new season.