PBS: The Profiteering Barney Scam

PBS: The Profiteering Barney Scam
by L. Brent Bozell III
November 13, 1997

PBS spent fortunes promoting its motto "If PBS doesn't do it, who will?" Now comes Barney the Dinosaur with a new one: "If we won't sue, who will?"

If you've not heard, the Lyons Group, the gazillionaires behind the "Barney & Friends" PBS show/ financial juggernaut, are suing the San Diego Chicken, a k a Ted Giannoulas, for copyright infringement. It seems the Chicken likes to beat up a Barney facsimile in front of appreciative audiences at sports events. The Lyons Group wants a permanent injunction against use of the ersatz Barney and a minimum of $100,000 for each time the Chicken used the gag in the past.

Barney's attorneys said in the complaint that continued use of the costume has caused irreparable injury, including "consumer confusion, diversion of trade and dilution of the distinctive quality of the valuable Barney trademark." (The Chicken's lawyers counter that it's a parody clearly protected under copyright laws and the First Amendment.) Notice the very capitalist language used by Barney's attorneys: confusion of consumers, diluting the value of the Barney trademark. That trademark made Barney the third richest entertainer on the Forbes list in 1994. What's gone utterly forgotten in this story is that Barney would have never been walking with his lawyers down Easy Street if taxpayers - those same people who cheer the San Diego Chicken - hadn't coughed up more than $2 milllion to start the show a few years ago. Instead of the greedy Barney merchants going to court, perhaps the taxpayers ought to sue: where is our financial dividend given that we funded the development and production of these 30-minute infomercials, not to mention the 300-station network broadcasting them?

While cable's most popular kids' program, Nickelodeon's "Rugrats," is just barely limping into the licensing market, the "nonprofit" competition is running rampant, with taxpayer-funded PBS characters in TV commercials. Have you seen the blitz of K-Mart advertisements with Rosie O'Donnell dancing around with Sesame Street characters? Maybe you saw the recent ad for Ford minivans, in which Big Bird tells parents to buckle up the kids. It used to be these PBS characters only sold themselves. Now they're shilling for other companies.

Barney might be feeling angry and litigious because it may be surpassed by the newest PBS kiddie-show star: Arthur, the aardvark resembling a mouse that teaches kids about reading, and who PBS says is now surpassing Barney in big-city ratings. In September, New York Times reporter Constance Hays noted behemoth Boston public station WGBH made sure "merchandising was a part of the Arthur script from the start." The show's executive producer, Carol Greenwald, claimed "Arthur" was $2 million short of its $12 million budget, and "we are hoping some of that comes out of the merchandising." Some of that? In the same story, Hays pointed out that the wholesale value of Arthur products is "at least $50 million," with ten percent being the usual licensing cut.

So immersed is PBS in the world of make-believe that it publicly justifies its huckstering as a way to compensate for budget cuts - and it's not true. Greenwald said "We knew we had the potential to launch it as a merchandising thing, and in the current climate for funding public television, that is critical." What harsh climate? The Republicans, led by PBS schmoozers Rep. John Porter and Sen. Ted Stevens, have increased the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's budget by $50 million a year, no doubt cowed by Big Bird and Barney marching down to Capitol Hill for pictures at appropriation time.

Toy makers, who tussle and fight over the right to license these PBS characters, know the financial value of allegedly nonprofit television. In the Times article, a vice president for Hasbro touted "Arthur" as "real cool, pro-social material for us." The licensing director for Sara Lee Underwear declared their Arthur undies are a good fit "for a character that was both entertaining and socially responsible."

Here's the irony. Free-market conservatives don't oppose merchandising, the catalogs, the stories in malls, the Asian-made Tickle Me Elmo, the Arthur underwear: WGBH is proving it can pay off in spades. It is the obvious solution, moving mere theory into reality, that public broadcasting doesn't need taxpayer dollars to operate.

So why, as Barney's Lyons Group goes to court and Children's Television Workshop is loaning its characters to K-Mart and Ford, are taxpayers paying corporate welfare to PBS? And why on Earth are Republicans increasing CPB's budget by $50 million a year and putting no pressure on them to privatize? The greedy dinosaur in the courtroom shows it's time for the taxpayer spigot to be turned off, once and for all.