By: Megan White
During the October 3 debate, presidential candidate Mitt Romney ruffled quite a few feathers when he declared that he would have no room for Big Bird
in his budget. “I’m sorry, Jim,” said the former Massachusetts governor during what was determined to be the most-watched moment of the debate, “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for us.”
Within moments, Romney’s comment had sparked a worldwide Sesame street fight. Twitter data revealed that the words “Big Bird” and “PBS” were tweeted 17,000 times per minute and 10,000 times per minute, respectively. The “@FiredBigBird” handle picked up 2,000 followers in the span of two minutes, a number that had climbed to 16,000 within one hour after the debate. The next day, PBS issued a terse statement, condemning Romney for not understanding the “value the American people place on public broadcasting and the outstanding return on investment the system delivers to our nation.”
Astrophysicist and NOVA ScienceNOW host Neil deGrasse Tyson famously declared, “Cutting PBS support to help balance the Federal budget is like deleting text files to make room on your 500Gig hard drive.”
A national survey conducted by the bipartisan polling firms of Hart Research and American Viewpoint determined that 69 percent of voters agree, and are opposed to the elimination of government funding for public broadcasting.
The big bird of the hour declined to comment because, according to decidedly apolitical “Sesame Street” representatives, he is only six years old and therefore does not understand politics.
In the face of this media hurricane, Romney resolutely stood by his pledge. During an interview on “The Situation Room,” he told Wolf Blitzer, “Big Bird is going to be just fine. ‘Sesame Street’ is a very successful enterprise. I don’t believe CNN gets government funding, but somehow you all stay on the air.”
Romney’s statement raises the question of just how “public” the Public Broadcasting Service truly is, and of how much it actually relies on government funding.
For the 2012 fiscal year, Congress has allotted $444.1 million for PBS programming, an amount that represents roughly 0.012 percent of the federal budget and costs each American citizen approximately $1.35. This federal funding is funneled through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, an organization created in 1967 to disperse funds to nonprofit broadcast outlets such as PBS and NPR. PBS receives 75 percent of this appropriation, which accounts for approximately 15 percent of its budget. Most of the service’s funding, however, comes from corporate and individual donations and private grants (60 percent), as well as local government support (20 percent).
As Romney stated in the interview, “Sesame Street” is a highly successful program and hardly relies on government funding at all. In 2010, Big Bird and friends generated nearly $133 million, or two-thirds of its revenue, in royalties and product licensing alone. Romney does not intend to fire Big Bird, but rather plans to show him a little tough love.
While PBS and Sesame Street fans at large can breathe a sigh of relief, viewers in rural areas still have cause for worry. For large public stations, federal funding is only a drop in the bucket, but for small stations in remote parts of the country, this funding counts for as much as 40 to 50 percent of their budget. In many of these areas, public broadcasting remains the only option. A 2012 CPB-commissioned study estimated that 54 public television stations in 19 states, 31 of which are in rural areas, are at a high risk of shutting down without federal support.
For parties on both sides of the street, the battle is symbolic. To Romney, funding for PBS, no matter how miniscule an amount, represents what he believes to be wasteful government spending. Cutting this funding represents a small step toward a balanced budget. To PBS officials and supporters, however, the funding is a symbol of the government’s dedication to a public education that is free from ratings wars and commercial influence. Public programming allows often un-served minorities access to the news of the day, the arts, and science. Cutting federal funding would mean cutting these people off from the outside world.
As the battle lines are drawn, the question that remains is whether the costs of funding PBS outweigh the benefits. The answer can only be decided by the contributions of viewers (and voters) like you.