Pledge drive turns ugly

Kevin Cowherd

March 10, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

Day 1 of Barney Held Hostage began with a wild-eyed woman on TV screeching at me to send money or else Barney gets it.

"I SWEAR TO GOD, YOU'LL NEVER SEE HIM AGAIN!" she screamed, face contorted in rage, spittle spraying at the camera. "DO YOU HEAR ME?! NEVER!"

OK, fine, maybe she wasn't quite that worked up. And maybe she didn't use those exact words. But there was no mistaking her intent: Get the checkbooks out or . . . well, something very unpleasant could happen to Barney.

As it was early in the morning and the first jolt of Folger's had not yet kick-started my brain, it took a few minutes to realize that my 22-month-old son and I were watching public television's spring pledge drive, the whiny annual beg-a-thon that has become broadcasting's version of scraping fingernails across a blackboard.

So it's come to this, I thought. Taking a cattle prod to the collective guilt of its viewers, public TV was trotting out one of its superstars: Barney, the big, gooey purple dinosaur who hosts the immensely popular "Barney and Friends."

The implied threat was this: Barney could be dropped in a heartbeat if the pledges didn't start rolling in.

This, of course, would plunge the child population of the U.S. (at least that segment aged 1-6) into a massive state of depression, since these children tend to hold Barney in the same reverence that 55-year-old women with teased hair and stretch pants reserve for Elvis.

As the pledge propaganda continued to spew from the TV and my 22-month old jumped up and down at the sight of his idol ("BAH-NEE! BAH-NEE!") it struck me just how clever this tactic was.

It's probably just a matter of time before these pledge drives feature close-ups of Barney bound and gagged in a corner of some dank cellar.

"Kids, some bad men have captured Barney," an off-camera voice would intone. "He hasn't eaten in three days. But you can help. Go get your parents. Tell them to send money so the bad men will let Barney go."

If the pledges didn't roll in fast enough, we'd be treated to a tight shot of Barney being pistol-whipped by two or three thugs, his muffled cries of pain echoing everywhere.

In between blows, as a final act of humiliation, he'd be forced to sing his sappy theme song ("I love you, you love me, we're best friends like friends should be . . .")

"You kids think we're playing games here?!" one of the thugs would snarl. "Send money, dammit!"

If the viewers were still slow to reach for their wallets, a gun would be held to Barney's head. Then a clock would be superimposed on the right side of the screen, with the second hand ticking dramatically.

"FIVE MINUTES!" a thug would scream as Barney trembled violently in the background. "EITHER WE GET $30,000 IN PLEDGES IN FIVE MINUTES, OR BARNEY SLEEPS WITH THE FISHES!"

And the money would roll in. Oh, you betcha. These would be very effective images.

Well before that cold steel gun barrel was jabbed into Barney's temple, children around the country would be wailing hysterically and screaming at their parents to open their pocketbooks and save Barney.

Pale and shaken, these parents would be feverishly dialing the 800 number on the screen and ticking off MasterCard, Visa and Discover card numbers to a host of eager-beaver volunteers manning the phone banks directly behind where Barney was being tortured.

What parent would want Barney's death on his or her conscience? How do you live with something like that?

As if the whole sordid business with Barney wasn't bad enough, things took a turn for the worse on public TV later that evening.

This was when I made the mistake of sitting down with all three of our children and watching a tear-jerker called "Echo the Elephant."

The early part of the documentary focused on the heart-rending struggles of Eli, Echo's baby, who had been born crippled.

Just as the footage was becoming almost unbearable to watch and the kids were turning misty-eyed -- BOOM! -- we were sent rocketing back to the studio for more pledge drive propaganda.

"It's your help that brings these wonderful programs to public television!" a man suddenly chirped.

God knows what was happening with Eli the baby elephant. I imagined the little fella stumbling around in some dense bamboo thicket, separated from his mother, terrified as nightfall set in.

I was beginning to feel the same way.

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