Nearly 50 years ago, when the show was in its third season, “Sesame Street” encouraged kids to get the measles vaccine by showing Big Bird and other children getting the injection. The move was similar to other public service campaigns that used beloved characters to help teach children life lessons, including discouraging littering, wearing seatbelts and looking both ways before crossing the street.
“What Big Bird is doing is part of a long tradition. But what’s different now, of course, is that everything is political and everything is contentious,” said Thomas Doherty, an American studies professor at Brandeis University. “Something that we all wanted a year ago, the vaccine, is now this matter of great contention.”
Controversy at the intersection of TV and politics has popped up here and there for decades. In 1952, “I Love Lucy” didn’t use the word pregnant once in an episode that focused on the title character, Lucy Ricardo, having a baby after executives determined that doing so would be too scandalous.
The 1970s TV series “Maude,” a spinoff show of “All in the Family,” which explored all manner of political and racial issues in the household of a bigoted man from the New York City borough of Queens, showed the character Maude opting to get an abortion. The storyline was aired a year before the U.S. Supreme Court made Roe vs. Wade the law of the land. Multiple affiliates refused to air reruns of the episode.