For those of you who think of Sesame Street as the eternal pre-schooler, this anniversary may come as a shock: Sesame Street has just turned 10.
Some of us, of course, have spent years preparing for this event. In the time that Big Bird has been Top Dog, for example, my own daughter has moved inexorably from one end of the 2-to-11-year-old "market" to the other.
Long past the Cookie Monster stage of life, she has now begun weaning herself from Saturday morning television and, with any luck, will be completely cartoon-free by this time next year. We refer to this as getting the Hanna-Barbera off her back.
In any case, I have, by now, some perspective of what Variety calls the Kidvid scene, and this is as good a moment as any to share it.
For one thing, I give a great deal of credit to Sesame Street, whatever its flaws, for its service against child abuse. At four o'clock in the afternoon, the average parent of a pre-schooler makes Oscar the Grouch look like Mother Teresa.
Sesame Street has been the savior of the witching hour. It is at worst harmless, at best educational, and at least more interesting than playing with the Babo under the sink.
I also give the producers credit for reaching so many of their own goals. Last year Sesame Street grabbed 95 percent or more of a target audience of pre-schoolers in inner-city areas like Bedford-Stuyvesant and Washington, D.C. It also became self-supporting by making Ernie and Bert as popular as Barbie dolls.
Despite controversy over whether the show is paced too quickly, and whether it is in fact "educational," Sesame Street continues to score highest when you compare it with almost anything on the commercial networks.
Which brings us to the commercial networks.
One thing Sesame Street hasn't done, alas, is to spawn a whole new generation of innovative information or experimental shows on the Big Three networks.
"When Sesame Street started 10 years ago, there was a possibility that it could be a model for commercial broadcasting," remembers Peggy Charren, the longtime head of Action for Children's Television. "Everyone hoped that the success of Sesame Street would cause exciting programs to happen in commercial TV. Instead, the commercial people consider it their excuse not to do anything."
The networks' idea of "exciting" programming is to spin off a nephew of Scooby-Doo. A quick glance (and this is all that you can bear) of prime kiddie-time on Saturday morning will deliver up the following cast of characters: Godzilla and his nephew Godzooky, Fang Face and his cousin Fang Puss, and Plastic Man's Hawaiian sidekick, named (are you ready for this out there in ACLU land?) Hula-Hula.
If that isn't enough to make you reach for the sugar-coated dial, consider the plot lines. You have either teen-agers dashing around together getting in and out of trouble in assorted galaxies, or animals chasing each other over the landscape.
With the exception of Fat Albert and a variety of terrific public affairs spots, it's the Same Old Saturday Morning. And that's the good news. The rest of the week -- except for good old Captain Kangaroo, the ABC After School Specials, Thirty Minutes and some fine specials -- makes a wasteland look fertile.
Broadcasters say that, gee whiz, they would love to put on "quality" programming, but, unlike public television, they have to look first at the bottom line. Commercial networks are geared to winning the ratings race in the $600 million kiddie market, attracting the widest number of 2-to-11 year olds. But the only thing 2-to-11 year olds have in common is a tube.
Parents and children's advocates have been trying to get better kids' TV since Big Bird was an egg. In 1970, ACT went with a petition to the Federal Communications Commission. The airwaves, after all, are public and the networks are required to serve the public interest in order to use the airwaves.
It wasn't until Oct. 31 of this year that the FCC stopped waiting for the broadcasters to change voluntarily. Its staff has finally recommended a rule that would force networks to use 7 1/2 hours a week for educational shows.
The irony is that, for a decade, Sesame Street has taught a simple lesson: it is possible to have quality programming that is popular; it is possible to take a risk and win. The networks, I think, have spent too much time lobbying and not enough learning.