Wishbone, meet Chester Cheetah Children's TV: PBS must remain an oasis of non-commercial programming for youngsters.

November 23, 1996

RARELY HAS a hypothetical million dollars, a cartoon mascot and a TV-star dog caused so much anxiety. The fact that they recently did speaks volumes about public television and the trust it has cultivated over the years among millions of viewers.

The issue was raised by a newspaper article that suggested Frito-Lay Co., the snack food producer with a plant in Maryland, was offering $1 million to the Public Broadcasting Service if it would allow a promotional spot with "Chester Cheetah," the hip mascot for its "Chee-tos" cheese curls. The spot would be a lead-in to "Wishbone," a popular children's show about a Jack Russell terrier who imagines himself a character in great literary classics.

Even though Frito-Lay has yet to formally propose the idea to PBS, the reaction was swift and sharp. Robert J. Shuman, new president of Maryland Public Television, felt compelled to call PBS President Ervin S. Duggan to voice his displeasure at even the prospect.

On other stations, where children are bombarded daily with intoxicating messages that they need better sneakers, that tTC certain beverages make them more likable and that grown-ups are buffoons, the question of whether a product mascot could corrupt the medium would be laughable. In fact, incessant marketing to American children in the '90s has become seamless: One can barely tell where a commercial leaves off and the show begins.

But public TV is very different. Corporations are drawn to sponsor productions on PBS precisely because of its high tone and the devotion of its audience. Chester Cheetah is a likable enough creature, but frankly, it would not take long for Chester and his ilk to foul the oasis where parents seek quality TV for their family.

Pub Date: 11/23/96

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