Was this show a must or a bust(ier)?

Did the producers of PBS’s famed Sesame Street children’s program do the right thing, or did they get weak-kneed and wobbly and engage in self-censorship after the first round of criticism? Or, are they the best PR people in the world? Or, did they just mess up?

Those are the questions that come to mind after the weird but entertaining spectacle that unfolded Thursday in front of many more people than probably would actually have seen the now-cancelled video on PBS with pop star Katy Perry and Sesame Street’s Elmo.

For the uninformed — and that includes me because, until Tuesday, when I began to receive e-mail from people, I didn’t know who Perry was — here, briefly, is what happened.

The focus on what was to be a future segment of Sesame Street began to swell after it became available on YouTube. A lot of mail apparently arrived at the Sesame Workshop, where the program is produced, and some came to me. In the video, Perry sings a parody of her hit song “Hot ‘N’ Cold” with Elmo, the small, red, fuzzy character. Perry, I would discover after many others had known, is both talented and attractive and seemed to me to have a wonderful voice and personality to connect with kids.

But she was dressed in a short, lime-green outfit and pronounced bustier on top that was widely characterized, and seen, as low cut; not movie star low cut, but low cut. On the other hand, if you take your child to any main shopping street or beach in America, not to mention the TV or internet viewing they may do while you’re not around, they will see much more.

Then, early Thursday, The New York Times reported online that Sesame Workshop said it would not show the music video planned for the forthcoming new season of the series that featured Perry, “citing in its decision the outcry of viewers who had seen the suggestive video online.”
Here Is What Sesame Workshop Said:

“Given the premiere of Sesame Street’s 41st season this Monday, September 27th, we wanted to make you aware that Sesame Workshop, producers of the series, have chosen not to include a scheduled appearance by Katy Perry in the PBS broadcast.

“Sesame Street has a long history of working with celebrities across all genres, including athletes, actors, musicians and artists. Sesame Street has always been written on two levels, for the child and adult. We use parodies and celebrity segments to interest adults in the show because we know that a child learns best when co-viewing with a parent or care-giver. We also value our viewer’s opinions and particularly those of parents. In light of the feedback we’ve received 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. Katy Perry fans will still be able to view the video on www.katyperry.com.”
My Thoughts

Personally, I feel it would have been okay to run the video and take a little heat from some segments of the audience. But I don’t fault the producers for the decision they made. This was, after all, entertainment, maybe a good watching and listening experience but not exactly a major learning experience. If you are going to annoy a fair number of viewers, you should have a good reason.

What I don’t understand, however, is how the video — which, in its cancellation, was reported on by virtually all major news organizations on all platforms and viewed probably a gazillion times on YouTube — got this far within Sesame Workshop management.

I watch a lot of PBS programs, including the kids stuff when I’m made aware of some interesting and controversial aspect. When I’m parked in front of the TV, I can tell in a microsecond when something I’m watching is going to produce critical mail from viewers. Many times, that just means that producers have made a hard-hitting or provocative program that is worth getting some criticism. So that’s good and to be expected. Sometimes, however, it just doesn’t seem to make sense.

The Perry video — after I finally got a look at it — for Sesame Street fell into that second category. I could tell, and I think anyone could, in a second it would get a fair amount of condemnation from some parents and it made me wonder why do it this way? Sesame Street is not just any other children’s program; it is an iconic broadcast, often brilliant, provocative at times, and it does exist on multiple levels with parents watching along with their children. My guess is that another inch of dress on top would have produced a slightly more modestly dressed Perry and an entertaining segment that would not have produced this embarrassing controversy.

There is no way, in my opinion, that experienced producers viewing this segment as it was being shot would not realize immediately that it will offend a sizeable number of their parental viewers. Whether one considers those views to be wrong or old fashioned, why alienate them over something like this that would seem so easy to remedy in production?

I asked Workshop executives to “please explain to me how this happens and the thinking that went into the segment. Did the producer think, for example, that Ms. Perry’s outfit would not alienate some of the parents who value Sesame Street and would have watched this? If there was concern, why do it this way? Did you consider suggesting to Ms. Perry, or actually ask, that she appear in more modest attire?” If I get an answer, I’ll post it.

Meanwhile, today, the show’s executive producer, Carol-Lynn Parente, appeared as a guest on ABC’s “Good Morning America” with host George Stephanopoulos. According to a New York Times account, Parente said she was surprised at the volume of disapproving responses the video had generated when it was posted on YouTube earlier in the week. “We would never, never produce anything that we thought was inappropriate,” she said and explained that the program books celebrity guests as a strategy “to go after those younger parents who may not have grown up with” the program and may not seek it out. Elmo appeared with Parente and said he “loves Miss Katy.”
Here Are the Letters

As a parent who watched Sesame Street as a child and who desired to show my son the same educational show I loved, I need to let you know my disappointment in the content on Sesame Street. Katy Perry, a current singer, was on the show recently. I was very disappointed in this decision. I believe she was inappropriately dressed and her music is inappropriate for children. I realize the lyrics were changed, but I think that the message is that children can and should listen to her music which is not true. As a concerned parent, I truly believe Sesame Street is a wonderful opportunity to educate children. I used to think it was one of very few shows on television for children that is educational and moral however, since you’ve started to invite celebrities on the show, I think the level of integrity has decreased.

Natalie Yevoli, Saint Peters, MO

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Good gracious, I’ve never been so outraged!! Sesame Street and Elmo meet Katy Perry?! Have you seen what this woman promotes in her music and videos? I am appalled that you would let her anywhere near beloved Elmo, especially dressed like that! Also, since when did male muppets start playing dress up with girls? Thankfully, I’ve raised my sons, however, I’ll never let my grandchildren watch Sesame Street again if this is the direction you are going.

Gilbert, AZ

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Maybe this should have been sent to Sesame Street, but I wanted you to know that I think it is outrageous to cancel the Katy Perry spot with Elmo. What is wrong with us? Does anyone really think a preschooler would even notice this display of cleavage? I will not contribute to PBS if they endorse this censorship or whatever it is — where does this stop?? Who owns the cleavage meter?

William Kazan, Westminster, MA

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Shame on you PBS. As a conservative Republican, it is deplorable that you would ban Katy Perry. You just don’t get it. Did she bare a breast? Did she swear? Ridiculous to let the weirdos make you ban Ms. Perry. Sad. Just sad.

Scott Boyle, Springfield, OH

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We think it’s outrageous that the Katy Perry segment was pulled from Sesame Street. It was delightful and fun. Why did you cave to the dozen or so fruit cakes that didn’t like the so called sexuality? Stand up for our rights!

Les & Mary Jackson, Key West, FL

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I just heard the story about Katy Perry appearing on Sesame Street. As I am over 30, I have no idea who that is. Out of curiosity, I typed her into Google. I had the misfortune of watching her video “California Girls.” That fact that you are cross marketing her and Elmo to toddlers is sickening. I have two kids under 4. I will not allow them to watch Sesame Street.

Adam McNamara, Ipswich, MA

More or Less Distracted

(Ombudsman’s Note: The following letters refer to a Sept. 21 segment on the PBS NewsHour in which correspondent Judy Woodruff interviews Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the toll taken in lives because of distracted drivers. The letters, all of which are critical, make a good point in calling attention to a study by the Pew Research Center just published in June that challenges what may be conventional perceptions on this issue. A response from Woodruff follows the letters.)

My name is Matthew Stafford. I am a student at Cleveland State University and a member of the National Youth Rights Association. I was disheartened to see Judy Woodruff’s piece on distracted driving unfairly scapegoated youth. In the piece aired on 9/21/10, reporter Judy Woodruff claimed that it is young people who are disproportionately affected by distracted driving. She cited no evidence to back this up. That is because there is none. In fact, according to a study done by the Pew Research Center, young people are less likely to be affected by this behavior than their elders. The PBS NewsHour is funded with our tax dollars. They’re using our money to promote ageist myths that encourage lawmakers to restrict youth even further. Worse yet, they are the most respected and trusted TV news broadcast in America, giving them power that must be used responsibly. It is their responsibility to be fair to all parties (including youth) and, above all, to get their facts straight to set a good example for future newscasters.

Matthew Stafford, Cleveland, OH

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In your PBS NewsHour on September 21, Judy Woodruff stated that the young are disproportionately affected by the habit of people driving while on cell phones. Yet according to the Pew Research Center, people under 30 are less likely than older drivers to text while driving or chat on a cell phone while driving. The only conclusion I could draw is that the people putting together this NewsHour relied on the age-old conventional wisdom about teens and, to some extent, twenty-somethings being more immature and irresponsible. Yet, as Mike Males showed in his seminal work “Scapegoat Generation,” adolescents are better-behaved in many ways than Americans in their forties and fifties, statistically speaking. When people make assumptions based on stereotypes and “conventional wisdom”, it is a slap in the face to youth. Look at any of the age-discriminatory policies today — school uniforms, curfews, Kyleigh’s Law in New Jersey — or look at the horror stories emerging from gulag camps paraded euphemistically as “behavior modification facilities” — or look at the United States’ drinking age of 21, one of the highest in the world, and the fact that 16-year-olds can still not vote in even a single U.S. state, even though the voting age is 16 in Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Austria, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, and you’ll see the effects of making preconceived notions about youth passed off as “common knowledge …”

People look up to PBS as a forward-thinking, socially responsible outlet for edification that is above the normal cattiness, pettiness and sensationalism of most media. When PBS broadcasts something like this, even thinking people will be deceived, and the trust of PBS’ viewership will be betrayed.

James Landau, Moraga, CA

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Yesterday on the PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff claimed “it is young people who are disproportionately affected by” distracted driving. She offered no evidence to support this ageist stereotype because there is none. A few months ago, the Pew Research Center released a study showing that young drivers are LESS likely than older drivers to text while driving or to chat on a cell phone while driving. Whether Ms. Woodruff acted out of malice or laziness, the effect is the same. A minority with little chance to defend itself was slandered and stereotyped. These lies make it harder for youth to get fair treatment from parents, from society, and from law-makers. PBS owes its young viewers more fairness and sensitivity. PBS owes older viewers more reliable information.

San Francisco, CA

Judy Woodruff Responds:

In the interview with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on September 21, I noted that “young people are disproportionately affected” by accidents involving distracted driving, in one of my questions. I based that on research made available by the U.S. Department of Transportation for 2008.

Here is what they state on their “Driving Distracted” website: “Police-reported data from the Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) and the National Automotive Sampling System (NASS) General Estimates System (GES) show that:

* The under-20 age group had the highest proportion of distracted drivers involved in fatal crashes (16%). The age group with the next greatest proportion of distracted drivers was the 20- to-29-year-old age group (12%).”

Further, it states with regard to the use of electronic devices: “A 2008 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reveals an increase in the use of electronic devices while driving and some regional differences in this practice.

And in the Overview: “The percentage of young drivers texting or using other hand-held electronic devices has increased from 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s 2008 nationwide survey, which provides the only nationwide probability-based observed data on driver electronic device use in the United States.”

I hope this answers the viewers’ questions. I appreciate the close attention to our reporting.

This column was originally published on pbs.org on Sept. 24, 2010.

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