First lady enlists Big Bird in quest to save public TV


The residents of "Sesame Street" became the stars of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. yesterday.

Big Bird played in the White House sculpture garden. A Muppet named Alice Snuffleupagus met Clinton aide George Stephanopoulus.

The characters were invited to the White House by first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton as the White House stepped up its effort to save federal funding for public television. The first lady urged Democrats and Republicans to cooperate to preserve educational shows for children. Referring to the way episodes of PBS' "Sesame Street" are "brought to you by" letters and numbers, Mrs. Clinton said: "I like to think of what we do in Washington as being brought to you by both the D's and the R's. But that's something we still have to work on."

Republicans in Congress want to cut back or eliminate funding for public broadcasting, which will receive about $285 million in federal money this year. They argue that the Public Broadcasting Service and National Public Radio can survive without the federal dollars, which provide about 15 percent of their funds.

The Republicans tried to cut spending for PBS and NPR for the current fiscal year, but President Clinton vetoed a $16 billion package of spending cuts that included these reductions. Republicans say they will try again this summer.

Until now, neither President Clinton nor Hillary Clinton had spoken out on behalf of public television, although Vice President Al Gore delivered a speech with Fred Rogers, the host of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood," several months ago.

Mrs. Clinton was unequivocal yesterday in her support.

"Public television is, for many children, the only channel available that has consistently effective educational broadcasting," she said.

Several experts at a White House panel discussion agreed that low-income children who can't afford cable TV are those who most need educational shows on PBS.

The White House event was organized by Peggy Charren, a Boston-based activist who has lobbied nearly 30 years for high-quality children's television.

The only discord surfaced when the theme song of "Barney & Friends" was played for the schoolchildren who had been assembled to serve as human props for a photo opportunity with the first lady and Big Bird.

As the song played, most held their hands over their ears and scrunched up their faces in disgust.

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