Will Mitt Romney’s reference to Big Bird and cutting off funding to PBS during Wednesday night’s presidential debate shine a new spotlight on government funding for public broadcasting?
ABC News declared Big Bird to be the big loser from Wednesday’s debate. Immediately, variations of Big Bird hashtags and handles sprung up on Twitter, including the @BigBirdLives handle, which pouted:
But would an elimination of funding truly cripple public broadcasting, or make much of a dent in the federal deficit?
On its website, PBS says its funding comes from several sources, including member stations’ dues, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, government agencies, foundations, corporations and public citizens. The federal appropriation for 2013 is $445 million. The Nieman Journalism Lab says most public radio stations receive only 10 percent of their funding from federal money.
In 2011, some members of Congress wanted to cut CPB funding after then-NPR CEO Vivian Schiller resigned following political controversies involving her subordinates. Paula Kerger, PBS president and CEO, put together this video to lobby for the continuation of funding:
PBS calls public television “America’s largest classroom” and says it is provided at a cost of $1 per person per year. It says the government appropriation “equals about 15 percent of our system’s revenues,” although it points out that at some smaller stations it amounts to 40 to 50 percent of their budget.
Thursday, Kerger said it was “stunning” that Big Bird became a focus of the debate.
PBS commissioned a survey in March 2011 by the bipartisan polling firms of Hart Research and American Viewpoint which it says showed 83% of Democrats and 56 percent of Republicans were opposed to eliminating federal funding for public television.
According to a CNN poll conducted in March 2011, Americans grossly overestimate how much of their tax dollars helps fund public broadcasting. Although the Corporation for Public Broadcasting received about $420 million in 2010 from the federal government, CNN’s survey said the median guess as to what percentage of the federal budget goes to public broadcasting was 5 percent — which would put funding at about $178 billion — 424 times higher than the actual amount. The actual funding represented about .014 percent of the federal budget.
So far, politicians have yet to wade into the Big Bird fray. But conservative Henry D’Andrea at The Washington Times wrote, “Kill Big Bird? Why Romney is right to cut PBS funding.” He says, “It is fair to assume that private entities will help take up the tab that the government currently subsidizes…”
President Obama today mocked Romney’s Big Bird reference: “Thank goodness someone is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It’s about time. We didn’t know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit. But that’s what we heard last night. Elmo, too?”
A similar perspective:
And as far as Big Bird and "Sesame Street" go, the potential cutting off of funding may be irrelevant. Sherrie Westin, executive vice president and Chief Marketing Officer of Sesame Workshop, told CNN’s Soledad O’Brien the idea of killing Big Bird “is misleading” and that “Sesame Street will be here — Big Bird lives on.” She said Sesame Workshop receives very little funding from PBS.
Sesame Street itself was staying out of the debate:
Regardless, PBS appears to be gearing up for a potential assault on its funding, tweeting today: