Newt at bay in Sesame Street fights for place

Americans see a threat to public service broadcasting as an assault on children's TV favourites. John Carlin in Washington reports The issue as Gingrich and his disciples see it is the political agenda of the public broadcasters
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Taking on Bill Clinton is one thing, Newt Gingrich has found. Taking on Cookie Monster is another thing altogether.

Mr Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, promised after his party's congressional election triumph in November that he would "zero out" government funding for public broadcasting, which he described as "elitist" and "a sandboxfor the rich".

What he rashly overlooked was that an attack on television's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) would be interpreted by taxpayers, rich and poor alike, as an attack on Cookie Monster, Big Bird and the rest of the Sesame Street cast.

Another of the Speaker's unwitting PBS targets was Barney, a dancing dinosaur so popular in the United States that Forbes magazine ranks him the country's third richest entertainer, behind Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey. Sales of merchandise earned the loveable Barney $1bn last year.

The issue came to a head last week after the start of a congressional hearing to examine the case for and against shutting down the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes funds to PBS, National Public Radio and a thousand local radio and television stations around the country.

The president of WYES, a public TV station in New Orleans, declared that losing Barney and Lamb Chop's Play-Along "would be a huge step backwards for America". Determined to avert catastrophe, WYES carried a message on screen during Barney, giving viewers (or their parents) the telephone number of their local Republican congressman, Bob Livingston. During the past week Mr Livingston's lines have been jammed with 300 to 400 calls a day from irate Barney fans. Other Republican congressmen around the country have been similarly besieged.

The issue, as Mr Gingrich and his disciples see it, is not so much children's programming as the political agenda of public broadcasters. One zealot of the Christian right, Robert Knight of the Family Research Council, told the congressional hearing thatPBS and NPR were "anti-free market economics, anti-traditional family structures, anti-conservatives in particular and Christians in general".

If Mr Knight had watched Barney on Thursday morning he might indeed have identified a sinister connection between the message of the programme and President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Barney - who has a plump hippo-ish face, is pink and green and tall, wears a ceaseless grin on his face and comes across as a beefy, overgrown schoolboy - bears a passing resemblance to Mr Clinton. On Thursday the theme Barney sought to implant on his susceptible audience was the value of good neighbourliness. "Hi neighbour! Hi neighbour!" he would trill, as real smiling children skipped past. Mr Clinton's address, Mr Knight might have noted, had centred on the need for Americans to rediscover community values.

Some of the adult entertainment PBS has on offer would appear, however, to refute the Republican notion that public broadcasting is a hotbed of pinko activism - especially the entertainment provided by the BBC. The questionable ethnic ethics of Fawlty Towers, notably in Basil's relationship with the "Hispanic" Manuel, raised eyebrows in liberal circles. Are You Being Served?, which is running now, was described by Modern Review magazine as the most politically incorrect sitcom in history.

But what really upsets Mr Gingrich's notions of patriotic correctness is the stuff that appears on the news and current affairs programmes. PBS and, in particular, NPR cover news and current affairs with a depth and breadth unheard of in the commercial networks. Much of NPR's foreign news, for example, is supplied by the BBC World Service.By contrast with the fast-food diet on commercial radio stations, NPR does supply something of an elitist gourmet menu. And it does venture into territory beyond the boundaries of Brave Newt World.

A report on gay sex among black men broadcast in 1991 still burns in the memory of, among others, Pat Buchanan, one of the Republicans' palaeo-conservative presidential runners in 1992. Only two weeks ago on All Things Considered, a guest commentator complained about the absence of kissing among gays in the mainstream US media. So in-bred is the puritan streak in the American consciousness that even some of the notoriously "liberal" members of the NPR news staff were shocked.

What galls Mr Gingrich and like-minded Republicans is that this anti-American trash should be funded by taxpayers. Not that they pay all that much: most of the money for public broadcasting comes from private donors and corporations. Public broadcasting costs taxpayers a dollar per head per year But the principle still holds. For Republican lawmakers, driven by a crusading zeal to balance the federal budget, the issue has acquired a powerful symbolic importance. Republican congressmen and pundits have been repeatedly making the point that if the public want what is on offer from the public broadcasters, then let them take their chance in the free market.

The viewers, however, feel differently. Two polls in the past two weeks have shown that more than 70 per cent of Americans, Republicans and Democrats alike, wish public broadcasting to continue receiving state funding.

"What they are saying," said Scott Simon, an NPR journalist, "is that if all they had to rely on was commercial broadcasting they would be malnourished."

Mr Simon,one of public broadcasting's best known personalities, joined NBC for a year as the host of a weekend morning current affairs programme. He left after a year and rejoined NPR at a third of his NBC salary. "The cornflakes people whose advertisingpaid for the show found that they could make a better return on their investment from home-repair slots than on news about Bosnia."

Children's television, Mr Simon said, was not immune to the tyranny of the ratings either. There was no guarantee Sesame Street would survive in the free market. "CBS had a fabulous show a few years ago called Captain Kangaroo. They pulled the plug on itbecause they figured they could make more money advertising for adults."

Edward Markey, a Democratic congressman, made the point by reference to the options available to children as published in the TV listings of USA Today on the morning of the congressional hearing. "On Fox there's Jenny Jones talking about women confronting the men who impregnated their teenage daughters; on CBS, Montel Williams with a show on bigamists; on Ricky Lake, people who use sex to control their lovers... on PBS, Sesame Street, Kids' Songs, Barney, Lamb Chop's Play-Along."

Mr Gingrich, confronted by the evidence of the polls as well as arguments more reasoned than his own, finds himself in a bind. He says he wishes to reinforce family values. But, as various American critics have noted, he is prepared if need be to pull the plug on Barney and Big Bird.