On the eve of its 40th anniversary, Sesame Street is courting a strange political controversy. A two-year-old episode featuring Oscar the Grouch as a (what else?) grouchy TV news reporter for (who else?) the Grouch News Network has caused a minor Internet kerfuffle among steamed fans of News Corp.'s (NWS) Fox News.
In the episode in question, Oscar the Grouch is a reporter covering, in breathless cable-news fashion, the trials and tribulations of Horatio the Elephant, who's trying to extricate himself from a bathtub. Oscar's quest for "all grouchy, all disgustin', all yucky" news goes awry when there's "breaking news" -- namely, Cookie Monster breaking a cookie.
Oscar explains to Cookie that he's now got two treats instead of one; Cookie hugs and kisses Oscar with joy; and Oscar's girlfriend, Grundgetta -- that's right: Oscar the Grouch has a girlfriend -- is so sickened by the outpouring of cheer that she threatens to change the channel to "Pox News." "Now there's a trashy news show," she says.
Some Fox fans who caught the Oct. 29 showing of the episode apparently mistook the "P" in "Pox" for an "F" -- as in "Fox News," which employs grouches of its own, like Bill O'Reilly. PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler wrote on his blog that this was the first time he had heard a complaint about the episode.
Getler sided with the offended viewers. "Now, on one level, Pox News as an alternative and competitor to the Grouch News Network would seem to be a clever and appropriate title," he writes. "But you would have to be anesthetized as a producer not to assume that many parents will hear this, or assume this, to be a clever shot at Fox News....Broadcasters can tell parents whatever they think of Fox or any other network, but you shouldn't do it through the kids."
I have a lot of respect for Gelter, but he's missing the bigger picture. The parodies are not for the young fans of Sesame Street but their long-suffering parents, who sometimes watch two and three episodes a day. Young kids could care less about Fox News, or any channel that doesn't feature Elmo.
After 40 years of trying to entertain both children and parents, Sesame Street has aired almost as many take-offs as Saturday Night Live -- in recent years it's gone after Mad Men, 30 Rock, The Amazing Race, the Indiana Jones movies, Law and Order, and Deal or No Deal. i would hate to see the writers stifled by one dust-up over one skit.
Head writer Joey Mazzarino told me during a recent visit to the set that most of the targets are flattered to be featured on Sesame Street. He hadn't heard a peep out of Fox News over the Grouch News Network.
Representatives from Fox News and Sesame Street's parent nonprofit, Sesame Workshop, did not comment. But maybe Sesame Street was too harsh on Fox News -- and too easy on its competitors who would have covered the story of an elephant stuck in a bathtub with the same slant.
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