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Reflecting on 'Sesame Street,' Lindsay Lohan and Jodi Johnston

The moment when Big Bird showed up in a presidential debate was the moment I almost hit the ceiling. Actually it happened a few moments later.

You remember – Mitt Romney was telling us all how much better an idea it was to cut minuscule PBS funding than to ask billionaires and millionaires to kick in more dough to benefit the country that allowed them to be rich.

Props to Mitt, of course, for being clever enough to personalize the subject and apologize to Big Bird and Jim Lehrer (in the moderator's chair), but when President Obama, somewhat incredibly, wouldn't take the bait, I wanted to see someone do a Kanye West (grabbing the mic when Taylor Swift won a VMA award for best video to inform us that, on the contrary, the video of his pal Beyonce was “one of the best videos of all time” and deserved it instead).

In the light of the president's momentary on-camera nap, I wanted someone – anyone – to charge to the podium and say “Are you kidding? 'Sesame Street' is one of the greatest and purest successes in the entire history of television. Do you have any idea how many kids have been launched on learning to read and count by watching it? How many parents were helped by being shown how to teach their kids to read?”

In fact, if you must know, I've never quite forgiven PBS for dropping “The Electric Company,” the half-hour show it launched in the 1970s to help kids advance to the next learning levels after “Sesame Street.” But then, if it hadn't, I suppose, we'd never have seen the subsequent career of Morgan Freeman, who first became a major national figure on “The Electric Company” with the already established Rita Moreno.

We should have known in the world we live in that the day would come on “Sesame Street” when there would be garbage on it that even Oscar the Grouch wouldn't want to touch. Kevin Clash, the puppeteer who's been Elmo for 28 years, resigned this week after two young men charged him with sexually abusing them as underage teenagers, although one of them has since recanted.

In a gruesomely inept and spectacularly ill-advised public statement (clearly, no “crisis manager” saw it beforehand), Clash said this: “Personal matters have diverted attention away from the important work 'Sesame Street' is doing and I cannot allow it to go on any longer. I am deeply sorry to be leaving and am looking forward to resolving these personal matters privately.”

Let me freely admit that I may be translating his statement incorrectly, but the way I read it, that means: “Yeah, I did it and they can't possibly let me stay on as Elmo, so I'll try to get lawyers good enough to whittle down the money these guys are asking for.” One of them, 24-year-old Cecil Singleton, is suing for $5 million.

If Clash were innocent, it seems to me, he'd be in a sclerotic rage to deny the charges and establish the truth. He wouldn't be caught up in distinctions about what's public and what's private. He'd want to do anything to get his public reputation back, not slink off into some dark corner to “resolve these personal matters privately.”

It goes without saying, I hope, that “Sesame Street” is a huge operation. In anything that large and that well-established over so many years, there is bound to be an employee or two on the wrong side of society and the law. It's particularly ugly in this case, because it involves child abuse of any kind, sexual or otherwise.

A tough story, all around. One with no possible upside for anyone.

Unlike these next items, which could all be told as unfunny “bad news, good news” jokes:

Liz and Lindsay – The Bad News: This, as some of us know, is the weekend that Lifetime Television lets the world see the final results of its cataclysmically bad idea to cast Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor in “Liz & Dick” (Sunday, 9 p.m.) I was offered a chance to preview it privately on the Web but was otherwise occupied that morning.

The Good News: Among those who took up the offer, the consensus seems to be that it's the howler everyone expected. On the other hand, they also say that for that reason true connoisseurs of unconscionable television should fire up their DVRs and be sure to preserve garbage immortality. In fact, there's even a chance it will end Lohan's career as an actress forever. That won't keep her out of courts and supermarket rags, but it is something.

Jodi Johnston – The Bad News: She's gone. The beautiful and immensely likable morning anchor of Channel 2 news has left the station to become a public relations executive at First Niagara Bank. I must confess a certain amount of bafflement that Channel 2 general manager Jim Toellner – a shrewd fellow by any assay – couldn't work out some arrangement to keep a news figure as attractive and popular as Johnston around, but it may be a matter of both money and available roles, i.e. how many star female anchors can inhabit the same TV news operation at the same time (carefully note how I've avoided any use of the word “diva,” which I intend to continue).

Carol Jasen and Jacquie Walker at Channel 4 seem to have set a record for simultaneous major female stardom on the same local TV news team. No one's going to move Maryalice Demler off her anchor chair, so it makes sense, then, for Johnston to want to stop waking up at 3 a.m.

In fact, Channel 4 probably deserves some kudos for keeping in house, at the same time, Diana Fairbanks and Walker, female star anchors both.

The Good News: With no readjustment of Johnston's on-air schedule by Channel 2's brass, her leaving Channel 2, as she told The News' Jane Kwiatkowski, means she can now lead something like a normal life with her family in a 9 to 5 world. It's hard not to be happy for her.

Call it “Dancing on C-level” – The Bad News: The title of “Dancing with the Stars” has always been more than a little hyperbolic. “Star” never really described 80 percent of the show's contestants. As host Tom Bergeron admitted on the international blockbuster success Tuesday, with the ousting of former Dallas Cowboy running back Emmitt Smith (a genuine star in his world), the show now suffers from major charisma depletion, the sort for which there is no allowance on reality TV. Another way of putting it is that everyone on the show's all-star edition who came in with a gigantic individual fan base ready to rock and roll – Smith and Kirstie Alley, above all – is now gone, leaving the show with something resembling an actual dance contest.

It is still amazing to me that the show's director, Alex Rudzinski, has never won an Emmy. What the show does every week in presenting the most complex choreography with optimal clarity is a virtual demonstration of the art of TV direction at its most sophisticated and brilliant.

The Good News: It's the finals. Only three couples left. The charisma-less version of it, then, will soon be all over.