In a way, you’ve got to sympathize with those beleaguered folks in the Obama campaign advertising shop. Clearly, they were trying to be funny with the Big Bird ad they released last week, which accuses Mitt Romney of ignoring Wall Street excess and going after PBS, instead. The ad is snide, and in a vacuum, it is funny. It’s hard to go wrong with footage of Big Bird snoring.
And it’s true that the line about firing Big Bird was one brief moment of weakness in Romney’s debate performance. If you’re going to talk about defunding PBS — an idea that has been kicking around Republican circles for years — it’s best not to cite one of the most beloved PBS characters in the same breath. And yes, Twitter went into a sarcastic frenzy after the Big Bird moment.
But here’s a communication tip, relevant for both Big Bird and his new friend Barack: It’s good to know your medium.
For example, sarcasm works great on Twitter, but in some places, snideness doesn’t translate very well — especially in national political ads. Republicans flayed the Big Bird ad as a small-bore defense of PBS funding. Skeptics pointed out Obama’s own Wall Street ties. Even Sesame Workshop asked the Obama campaign to take the ad down, on the grounds that it didn’t want its characters politicized.
But “Sesame Street” isn’t always politically pure. Muppets have been enlisted to defend PBS funding in the past, and in 2002, Elmo testified before Congress in favor of more federal spending on music education. “Sesame Street” has gently mocked Fox News, in a segment featuring Oscar the Grouch.
It’s just that PBS and Sesame Workshop have always controlled the message — and have managed to leverage Big Bird’s bipartisan hold on our national culture. He’s eight feet of warm associations, said Sylvia Chan-Olmsted, a University of Florida professor who has studied the branding of PBS. Even Romney loves him, and you get the sense that the guy isn’t usually nostalgic about animals.
And whatever happens to PBS funding, Big Bird will survive, thanks to all of those Tickle Me Elmo dolls and the other zillion-and-a-half licensed “Sesame Street” products. There has apparently been a run on Big Bird costumes for Halloween, which will surely help fill the Sesame Workshop coffers.
The long-term survival of PBS is a bigger question — not because of federal funding, but because of competition. The PBS brand has value, but a good image doesn’t always translate into ratings, Chan-Olmsted said. And while the network continues to churn out good shows, it no longer holds a monopoly on preschool TV. Nick Jr. is as savvy as Sesame Workshop, if not more so, at licensing products and raising brand awareness.
Indeed, what’s more likely to bolster PBS — both its children’s programming and its adult offerings — isn’t Obama’s financial support, but commercialization. PBS could stand to fully embrace the modern marketplace, to license a range of characters and insert them into modern culture, to be as shameless about salesmanship as Sesame Workshop has been. Licensing equals advertising. It also equals revenue.
PBS executives have long been skittish about going more commercial, and understandably so: Chan-Olmsted said there’s danger in tampering with the brand, which stands for a certain purity of intent. And yes, there will be choices to make between acceptable products and crass ones.
But there’s already a fine line between a “sponsored by” message and a 30-second ad. And there’s a need for PBS to adapt to the new realities of TV: the DVR, the On Demand menu, the website. In the future, PBS’s chief competition will come, not from rival networks, but from individual shows, Chan-Olmsted said. Already, she watches “Downton Abbey” episodes on her tablet before she goes to bed.
Clearly, there’s hope for PBS, which showed more modern-media savvy last week than the Obama campaign. The network ran a sponsored tweet directing readers to a website, valuepbs.org, that cites poll results showing PBS’s public support. Sesame Workshop agreed to let Big Bird appear on “Saturday Night Live.” It goes to show what happens when you know your medium. Big Bird, at least, seems to understand what a tweet can do, and what it can’t.