“I’m Sorry Jim”

"I'm sorry Jim, I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS," GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney told PBS anchor Jim Lehrer, during the first presidential debate. "I like PBS. I love Big Bird," Romney said, referring to the popular ‘Sesame Street’ character. "I actually like you, too. But I’m not gonna keep spending money on things and have to borrow money to pay for it.”

With these words, Big Bird became an unwitting and unwilling prop in campaign 2012. Within moments “Big Bird” and “PBS” were each earning 17,000 tweets per minute -- more than Romney earned during his nomination acceptance speech at the GOP Convention, which hit a high of 14,289 tweets per minute. Of course, none of these numbers indicate whether the tweeters were for or against Romney on the "Big Bird" subsidies, but it does indicate a lot of interest in an issue that does not often rise to the level of presidential debate when every sentence, every gesture, every expression of the candidates comes under heavy scrutiny.

Romney’s position is not new – he was clear during the Republican primaries that he supports ending subsidies to public broadcasting. In November 2010, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, Co-Chairs of the National Commission for Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, proposed cutting funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (see point 32) as a way to address the nation’s growing debt. Eliminating this funding, the co-chairs argued, would save about $500 million in 2015.

Back in January, PBS chief Paula Kerger was asking viewers to oppose Romney’s position that public television will have to become ad-supported. At the time, Kerger noted that that federal rules governing public broadcasting prohibit commercials. She added that commercial TV channels are notably different than PBS and contrasts History Channel's "American Pickers" with a Ken Burns' documentary.

After the October 3 debate, the Obama campaign seized on Romney’s comments and, as Politico sees it, transformed an 8-foot yellow Muppet into its mascot. For Obama aides, mocking Mitt Romney’s pledge to cut funding for PBS and Big Bird is part of an effort to pin down Romney for being short on specifics on cuts to Federal programs. “We believe that this is a way we can use Big Bird and ‘Sesame Street’ as a vehicle for showing that Romney’s deficit plan is hollow and empty,” Obama campaign spokesman Adam Fetcher said.

Romney replied saying, “You have to scratch your head when the president spends the last week talking about saving Big Bird. I actually think we need to have a president who talks about saving the American people and saving good jobs.” He went on to say during an interview with CNN, “I think people understand that we can't keep on spending like there's no tomorrow, we can't keep on borrowing and spending massively more than we take in every year. 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 ya'll stay on the air. I just think that PBS will be able to make it on its own, and it does not require us to go to China to borrow money to keep PBS on the air."

Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization behind Sesame Street, asked both campaigns to remove all Sesame Street characters and trademarks from their campaign ads. But PBS shrewdly purchased the character’s name as an advertising keyword on Twitter to promote the public broadcaster on the social network. The decision shows how companies are learning to respond to the massive but short-lived ad opportunities that bubble up on social media.

Sesame Workshop receives money from several government agencies for its international production and domestic outreach work. But “Sesame Street” directly receives only $4 million a year from PBS. The group returns about $2.5 million to PBS through an arrangement that shares revenues from merchandising and other income streams, making the net cost to taxpayers $1.5 million. Sesame Workshop’s total revenue for 2009 was about $130 million. Of that, about $7.9 million came directly from government grants. Of course, program fees from stations account for $27 million – some of that comes from federal dollars funneled to local PBS entities, though the Form 990 doesn’t break that out. Sesame figures 8 percent of its total budget comes from the government. Given a $130 million overall budget, that comes in at about $10.4 million. Given that this year’s federal deficit is $1.1 trillion, Big Bird is nothing but speck of dust on a mote on a dandelion that Horton the Elephant is trying to save from being boiled in oil.

The bigger target, of course, may be the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Created in 1968, CPB provides operational support for the nearly 1,300 locally-owned and locally-operated public television and radio stations, which reach virtually every household in the country. CPB received $445 million from the government this year, about two-thirds of which was granted directly to local television and radio stations. The rest was spent on grants for programming and administrative costs. The total amount comes out to about $1.35 per American per year and is about one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget, contradicting the widely held belief that public broadcasting represents 1 percent or more.

So why bother to go after it? Peter Grier writes in The Christian Science Monitor that conservatives have long decried federal subsidies to public broadcasting because they consider it blatant waste. Today’s broadcasting environment doesn’t lack for high-quality choices, as it did in the 1960s when CPB was formed. Plus, much of public TV and radio could survive just fine on its own, according to this view.

But a report commissioned by Congress this year found that the elimination of federal funds would leave 54 public television stations and 76 public radio stations, most in rural areas, “at high risk of no longer being able to sustain operations.”

The campaign trail comments about public broadcasting this week have made “folks more aware of how small the number is and how deep the appreciation of public television is,” said Rich Homberg, president and general manager of Detroit Public Television, where federal funds account for about 7 percent of revenues. Several station managers said they had been struck by the outpouring of support on social media Web sites and in phone calls from viewers.

In a column in the New York Times, Charles Blow wrote of how, when he was a child, Sesame Street taught him the alphabet and the colors and how to do simple math. “Big Bird and his friends also showed me what it meant to resolve conflicts with kindness and accept people’s differences and look out for the less fortunate.” He concludes, “I don’t really expect Mitt Romney to understand the value of something like PBS to people, like me, who grew up in poor, rural areas and went to small schools. These are places with no museums or preschools or after-school educational programs. There wasn’t money for travel or to pay tutors. I honestly don’t know where I would be in the world without PBS.”

By Kevin Taglang.