Giving Big Bird the Bird

During last week’s presidential debate, Mitt Romney promised to kill funding for Public Broadcasting, which includes Sesame Street, the most successful educational TV show for children in the United States, if not the world. Here’s what he said: “I’m sorry, Jim [Lehrer, the moderator]. I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m gonna stop other things. I like PBS, I like Big Bird, I actually like you too.”

Season 1: 1969-70.

Now there are issues and there are issues in this presidential race. But PBS should not be one of them; in the grand scheme, it is a tiny sum  (just ask Count von Count to crunch the numbers). The victim of such cuts would be Sesame Street, which has had demonstrable triumphs in counterbalancing morning cartoon pap. Here’s what Harvard lecturer Joe Blatt said about “the Street:”

When Sesame Street made its debut, the idea of using television for education was innovative, largely untried and untested, and still unfamiliar, certainly to most parents and educators. Television producer Joan Ganz Cooney had the fairly radical idea that entertainment techniques — including commercial-style jingles and celebrity cameo appearances — could be repurposed for teaching the alphabet and other preschool content.”

Sesame Street was the first national television series to feature a fully integrated cast — the original hosts were an African American couple, and their friends and neighbors were a mix of other ethnic groups, not to mention multi-colored Muppets. Versions of Sesame Street have now been broadcast in more than 70 countries, largely through co-production arrangements with indigenous officials, educators, and producers. While the rest of us have started to recognize the importance of pursuing a truly international perspective in our work, Sesame has been doing it for decades.

Jim Henson’s earliest idea for a walk-around bird puppet (1963) was originally designed for a Stouffer’s Food commercial.

If for any reason, you’ve never heard of Big Bird, let’s take a look at the history of its design, created by Jim Henson back in 1965 (go here). To take out our national frustrations on Big Bird is worse than bird-brained—it’s mean and grouchy.

Jim Henson’s original design for Big Bird.


For more Steven Heller, check out The Education of a Graphic Designer—one of the many Heller titles available at

4 thoughts on “Giving Big Bird the Bird

  1. tony

    Why stop there? Were still funding NPR. That couldn’t function without our tax dollars.
    Too many evil libs spreading hate there and we pay their saleries. No more wasted taxes!
    Let’s pay our bills and quit borrowing from China which our children will have to pay!

  2. Mike

    The entire PBS budget for a year is something like 6 hours of running the Pentagon.
    PBS, which is only partly funded by the U.S. (15% of its budget), is run mostly from private and corporate donations. It simply makes a nice target for the radical right.

  3. vanderleun

    Sesame Street will do fine no matter what. The real reason for defunding PBS is that a bunch of American quislings actually draw a salary from that stifling mass of white people’s kulture.  It is decades overdue.