As the CEO of The Jim Henson Company, a family organization founded by my father and mother in 1955, I have the privilege of leading a team of performers, artists, craftsman and staff in continuing my father’s creative legacy; a legacy that in recent years has included producing many shows for preschoolers—some of which air daily on PBS.
Early in his career, when Jim Henson himself was a father of young children, he was one of the collaborators who would go on to develop and produce the groundbreaking series Sesame Street. Jim was inspired by the challenge of educating kids through the medium of television, especially in the first few seasons, when he not only created characters like Oscar the Grouch and Big Bird, but also produced animated films like King of 8, Queen of 6 and many more.
Sesame Street, produced today by Sesame Workshop, became a cornerstone for the new PBS—identifying it as “America’s largest classroom,” with the goal of using media to prepare children for educational success and encourage them to learn about the world they live in. Almost 50 years later, PBS remains committed to teaching and sparking curiosity in its youngest viewers, especially our children who are most at risk. Today, we no longer ask if a child is learning from media, but rather what could they be learning. And PBS has proven itself to be the place for the best practices in using media for education. It is for this reason that I so firmly believe that we should not give up on funding public television and that PBS, and the children it serves, deserve our continued support.
PBS today is much more than Sesame Street, with shows covering literacy, math, engineering, social studies and science. Like my father, I take seriously the responsibility to spark a child’s interest in learning. Our shows Splash and Bubbles, Sid the Science Kid and Dinosaur Train are developed using science curricula that are created in true partnership with—and vetted by—educators, scientists and developmental advisors. We also use this curricula as a guide to provide carefully crafted resources for caregivers and teachers that can be used in classrooms and communities, addressing the need that exists for both preschoolers and their caregivers to become motivated about early science education.
Shows on PBS are curriculum-driven, meet school standards, and reach the high number of young children who do not attend preschool and risk beginning kindergarten less prepared. (According to the National Center for Education Statistics, only 54% of 3- to 4-year-olds attend preschool.) This is perhaps the sharpest point of difference when compared to commercial programming that lacks the pedagogy behind its content or simply has no curriculum at all. This is also what is at stake if PBS shows lose funding. There is a preconception that if PBS did not exist, the void would be filled by commercial enterprise, but that is simply not the case.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS provide a crucial piece of funding to create this exceptional programming that is available free of charge, just about everywhere, on-air and online. As important, an investment of $1.35 per year per taxpayer also allows the CPB to provide much-needed dollars to PBS stations—stations that reach more kids ages 2 to 5, more moms with young children, and more children from low-income families than any other kids’ TV network, according to a Nielsen survey. This funding is especially important to stations in rural areas of our country, where families rely on over-the-air television service—and PBS is often their only source of educational media. PBS stations across the country also provide community engagement that help bring the on-air learning to life with resources, events, educator support and digital learning media.
Eighty-three percent of all voters agree that we should look to other places to save money before cutting support for public media, according to a 2017 national voter survey on support for public broadcasting. The educational content it provides can open a world of possibilities to our country’s youth, encouraging them to see pathways to careers in the high-demand science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields that they often otherwise couldn’t imagine themselves working in.
My father instilled in me and his company the optimism that comes with believing that people are basically good, that we are all in this world together, and that we should look out for each other. So much of the children’s programming on PBS reflects these simple ideas, and it is programming that is worth protecting.
Lisa Henson is CEO of The Jim Henson Company and executive producer of Sid the Science Kid, Dinosaur Train and Splash and Bubbles.