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Abu Dhabi Media Summit: What the Big Bird controversy means for children's media

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. But I would love to have more funding so that we could programme Sesame Street 260 days per year and use technology to tailor it more for each individual child.”

He said emphatically: “We believe that public broadcasting should be preserved and even increased.”

The flurry of attention on Big Bird this past week is a good reminder of the importance of educational media, Ming said. “Hopefully we can move [the attention] from the political football and hot potato to [explore] what is the rightful place of TV and other media for getting a child school ready and life ready.”

He added: “There has been a recognition of the place of Big Bird in American society, as an icon and a teacher, for children who cannot vote who have no voice…We are seeing support for public broadcasting because it connects with every person and every community in the US.”

Moving forward, Sesame Workshop hopes to continue to innovate with new platforms such as iPad apps. “It’s getting children engaged more….we are continuing to refine that to see how we can make learning more individualized…Technology will permit a measurement of what [children] are looking at, so they get more of what they need and less of what they don’t need. If we can get games into this equation we think we can revolutionize preschool education,” Ming explained.

Another growth area for the company is international, with content now created in more than 30 markets (where local partners are key). Robert Knezevic, VP of international at Sesame Workshop, revealed that the company was “very soon” going to reintroduce a Gulf version of Sesame Street.

“There is a tremendous need here that we believe we can fill with Arabic-language content on a number of issues,” Knezevic said in Abu Dhabi. After working with the Arab Bureau of Education, the company has devised a curriculum that will include Arabic-language skills, health education, and “respect and understanding.”

In the Middle East, the company already has programmes in Egypt, Palestine and Jordan.

“We create a tremendous amount of content in US which we distribute in a very traditional media business model. But we know children learn best in their cultural context, they learn best in the language of their cultural mother,” he noted.

So instead of exporting Big Bird to every territory, local experts create their own characters, such as Boombah the hedonistic, vegetarian lion in India, or Kami, an HIV-positive orphan muppet in South Africa. “The point was to create characters who represent the national character of that country,” he said.

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