Sex scandal could hit Sesame Street's bottom line
Elmo puppetier Kevin Clash denies alllegations but merchandise sales could suffer.
Sesame Street, where the sun is always supposed to shine, has been rocked by allegations that Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash had a sexual relationship with an underaged boy. The effects of these allegations, which Clash disputes and his employer argues are unfounded, could be profound.
As I previously reported, Sesame Workshop, the non-profit that produces the beloved children's show, is struggling. It generated $46.9 million in licensing revenue in 2011, accounting for 36% of its $132 million in operating revenue. Though I haven't seen specific data on this, it's safe to assume that Elmo merchandise accounts for a good chunk of these sales, since the red-haired, furry monster is by far the show's most popular character.
Sesame has struggled of late and has been forced to lay of employees as it fights to keep its federal funding. Clash has been the voice of Elmo since 1984. He has been granted leave from the show to fight the allegations, which may affect sales of Sesame Street merchandise, particularly if more accusers surface.
The timing of the scandal couldn't have been worse since it is so close to the all-important holiday season. Moreover, it may fuel efforts by conservative critics to cut federal support for Sesame and PBS, a move advocated by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
Sesame fiercely protects its public image. When I visited the set as part of an assignment for DailyFinance in 2009, I was told that under no circumstances was I to take photographs the "dead" muppets that were lying on the table. Sesame didn't want to destroy the illusion that Elmo and his friends were living, breathing things that are brought to life by some very talented performers. It was a little like the Wizard of Oz telling Dorothy not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain. Amazingly, children who visited the set and saw Clash perform as Elmo did just that, focusing all their attention on the monster, ignoring the man who was controlling his every move.
When I met Clash, who is a big guy despite his falsetto Elmo voice, he was gracious and even recorded an Elmo voice mail message for my son, who like most toddlers was a huge Elmo fan. Clash, though, seemed to be a demanding task master. He often directed parts of the show where he was performing and wasn't shy of pointing out when things didn't go the way he wanted. Given the six-figure salaries Sesame pays its performers and staff, it stands to reason that Clash has been well-compensated for his labors.
Clash has capitalized on his association with Elmo. He co-wrote "My Life as a Furry Red Monster: What Being Elmo Has Taught Me About Life, Love and Laughing Out Loud" in 2006. He even starred in the documentary Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey, released this year, in which he briefly discussed being a divorced dad. At least one reviewer found Clash's lack of introspection to be strange.
"His adult life is also glossed over: There was a marriage, a child, a divorce. But there is little explanation and nothing to give us any idea about what his life is like now outside of the Muppet world," wrote Marsha Lederman in Toronto's Globe and Mail.
Of course, given today's news, the reasons for Clash's reticence may be obvious. Clash seems to have made some poor choices in his personal life. The performer admits he had a relationship with the person who lodged a complaint against him but only did so after the man was of legal age.
"We also conducted a thorough investigation and found the allegation of underage conduct to be unsubstantiated," says Sesame Workshop. "Although this was a personal relationship unrelated to the workplace, our investigation did reveal that Kevin exercised poor judgment and violated company policy regarding internet usage and he was disciplined."
I don't think the scandal has reached the point where retailers are pulling Elmo toys from their shelves. That could easily happen, however, if more accusers surface against Clash. People are going to search for skeletons in his closet. TMZ is reporting that Clash's accuser has hired Andreozzi and Associates, a law firm that represented one of Jerry Sandusky's victims.
Sesame is arguing that Elmo is bigger than Kevin Clash, and that's no doubt true. If Clash has to leave the show, someone could take his place. Many of the show's beloved characters such as Grover, Cookie Monster and Ernie have been portrayed by numerous performers over the show's more than four decades.
Clash is going to have to own up to his mistakes if he wants to get the public on his side. Elmo would expect no less.
--Follow Jonathan Berr on Twitter@jdberr.
OMG! I was afraid Gonko was Porking Ms. Piggy.
And is Kevin Clash a Catholic Preist. You know those Preists aren't going to like a non-Priest getting in on their little boy action.
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