Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Hard Day's Nights at PBS: A Shout-Out (using our 'inside voices') to PBS Hostess Melanie Martinez

A couple of posts ago, commenting on the gauntlet the F.C.C. is throwing down to PBS regarding the latest Ken Burns documentary, I recalled a piece from The Onion in which the letter D was reported to boycott Sesame Street on account of the program's introduction of a gay muppet ("Roger"). Now comes word from the Times (through the AP) that Melanie Martinez, hostess of the PBS Sprout night-time program, "The Good Night Show," has been fired for having appeared in film shorts which "spoof" sexual abstinence PSAs. Not pornos. Parodies.

Before I carry on as usual, allow me to point out the rhetorical similarities between the Times report on Martinez and The Onion's scoop, er, spoof, on the letter D. Uncanny, no? No doubt The Onion has the discourse down pat, but I find the PBS release even more amusing: specifically, their claim that these videos are going to "undermine [Melanie's] credibility with [their] audience," (which is to say) two- to five-year-olds . . .!? Yeah, when they're jonesing for a toon, my kids are all about the cred. Good grief.

So how interesting, then, that while Ken Burns will campaign (successfully, I would think) to have his program on World War II aired, profanities intact, at the 8:00 hour, our gal Mel M. has been fired from PBS for airing her views (if you could call it that) off the clock, as it were, on her own time (in fact, seven years ago). And while I'm pretty keen on Mel M. for getting my children to do yoga (my son Ollie does a pretty mean "tree"), I have yet to see her slip in any messages about condoms (that is, between her introductions of "Angelina Ballerina" and "Thomas the Tank Engine"). Maybe that's what "Hush" the goldfish is mouthing, in his fishbowl off to the side ("wear some scuba gear, kids, if you know what I mean. . .").

As I could have made more explicit in that earlier post, the FCC policies the PBS Burns doc is negotiating attempt to restrict profanity from hours when children might be watching. Such regulations stipulate that, should the profanity remain, The War should be televised at 10:00 p.m.; Burns was expecting the prime time slot of 8:00 p.m., and not planning either to bleep his subjects or otherwise edit his program.

Besides stretching the bounds of their morals clause -- really, I would not have been aware of Melanie's participation in that parody had PBS not gone and fired her, and told us all about it -- and speaking out of two sides of their mouths -- that is, pushing for the profanity restrictions on the Burns' doc to be lifted, while firing one of their own, for questionable "dialogue" uttered off network -- PBS execs are missing what I thought was the entire point of airing a night-time show for kids: that is, PBS Sprout is the one place we parents can turn to when the main PBS network (and the rest of the cable roster) is showing something otherwise objectionable and inappropriate for children.

Now, you Puritan types who object to any and all TV for kids might object to airing any childrens' programming at night. When PBS launched the network, I myself was apprehensive that I would be fighting the clicker battle well into the wee hours.

But I have a child with a chronic illness that occasionally keeps her up at night. On these occasions, I have been exceedingly grateful for something to sedate her -- I am of no illusions that TV functions that way -- and that it was benign, (often sickeningly) saccharine PBS fare, and not the paean to violence featured on Jetix, or the mature innuendo-laced humor of Adult Swim. (In this respect, I should add that I believe that no parent can be expected to provide enriching, non-televised activities for their children 24/7; just as important, what child, sick and miserable at three in the morning, wants to feel pressured to be enriched?) For some kids, for various reasons, and under certain circumstances, the very self-medicating properties we (think we should) condemn of children's television can be a salve of limitless benefit both to the child and his or her family members, who may need the rest in order to care for others.

Indeed, just as it is wrong to assume that families come in only one flavor, it is wrong to assume that every family schedules their lives according to the false exigencies of "prime time." The industrial revolution structured the vague calendar of agrarian life in order to maximize factory output; we owe to unions the regulation of work and its restriction to the (more or less) standard 40-hour work week. Just think, however, of the extent to which our lives have been further regulated by television programming -- when we should, or should not, expect to be diverted from the said work week -- in order to maximize commercial (i.e., advertising) output. Even PBS, which claims not to advertise but finds other ways to make its sponsors known, subscribes to the outdated prime time model.

The truth is, just as many families do not fit the conventional mold, many families also do not follow the conventional schedule. I am reminded of this whenever I drive past the hospital where I gave birth to my two children, where there is a 24-hour day-care center for children whose parents work overnight at the hospital. But think of the many other non-conventional jobs and professions, which have parents working all sorts of hours, not only so they can provide for their children, but also so they can spend time with them, whenever they can.

The relative beauty of the balkanization of television (into the hundreds of assorted cable networks) is that people can choose not only what, but also when, to watch. And let's not forget that, with one slip of the clicker, children might view former prime time, now syndicated, and ineluctably adult shows (say, Friends, or Seinfeld) at five or six o'clock. When you look at the current media market, the F.C.C. regulations make no sense, and strike me as a form of collusion with the conventional networks to claim some last vestige of prestige for conventional "prime time."

So Melanie, while my dentist bills have spiked since you and your sticky sweetness have been on air at Sprout, I genuinely hope you land on your feet from this little kerfuffle, and that we'll be seeing you in something else soon. It just isn't right, kids, for so many reasons. Bon nuit.

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