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Save Big Bird! Public broadcasters defend federal support

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 8, 2012 - Making a guest appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” Big Bird said he didn’t want to talk politics because he didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.

That hasn’t stopped anyone else, on both sides of the issue raised by Mitt Romney during last week’s debate.

A lot of the talk after the joint appearance by the presidential candidates centered on how Romney performed against President Barack Obama. But the focus of a considerable amount of chatter seemed to be about the GOP candidate’s apparently offhand comment about what he would do to funding for PBS if he ends up in the White House.

He told moderator Jim Lehrer, a longtime mainstay in public broadcasting:

“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS, I love Big Bird. Actually like you, too. But I’m not going to -- I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

Obama played with the notion the next day in Cleveland, telling a campaign audience, “Don’t worry, somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. Elmo, you better make a run for it. Gov. Romney is going to let Wall Street run wild again, but he’s going to bring the hammer down on ‘Sesame Street.’ ”

That brought the crowd to chant:

“Save Big Bird!  Save Big Bird!  Save Big Bird!”

And Romney’s remark about Lehrer and the denizens of Sesame Street is apparently part of his regular repartee. As CBS News noted, Big Bird has been a frequent foil of the former Massachusetts governor on the campaign trail. In February of this year, for example, he told an audience in Michigan, the home of Kellogg’s cereals:

"You know, we send money every year to PBS so they don't have to have advertising on 'Sesame Street'. I like 'Sesame Street'. But I'm willing to have Big Bird look at Corn Flakes from time to time, all right?"

Big Bird, big fuss

But underlying the verbal sparring – including tweets, electronic and otherwise -- officials with public broadcasting detect a serious threat to their funding, a threat that they say would not only harm them but would deprive their audience of valuable programs that they cannot get anywhere else.

The Public Broadcasting System released a statement the day after the debate that said in part:

“We are very disappointed that PBS became a political target in the presidential debate last night. Gov. Romney does not understand the value the American people place on public broadcasting and the outstanding return on investment the system delivers to our nation. We think it is important to set the record straight and let the facts speak for themselves.

“The federal investment in public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredth of 1 percent of the federal budget. Elimination of funding would have virtually no impact on the nation’s debt. Yet the loss to the American public would be devastating.”

Over the course of a year, it said, 91 percent of all U.S. households tune in to their local PBS station, and 81 percent of the nation’s children between the ages of 2 and 8 watch PBS.

“As a stated supporter of education,” the statement added, “Gov. Romney should be a champion of public broadcasting, yet he is willing to wipe out services that reach the vast majority of Americans, including underserved audiences, such as children who cannot attend preschool and citizens living in rural areas.”

Sesame Workshop, which gave Big Bird his big break, weighed in as well, saying:

“Sesame Street has been a proud partner of PBS for 43 years and is dependent on PBS to distribute our commercial-free educational programming to all children in the United States. At a time when improvements in school readiness are recognized as being much needed for a significant number of America’s preschoolers, PBS’s ability to connect Big Bird and Friends to these children is essential.  We highly value that connection.  Sesame Workshop is a nonpartisan, nonprofit, educational organization. We do not comment on political campaigns, but we’re happy we can all agree that everyone likes Big Bird.”

Financial lifeline

Jack Galmiche, president and chief executive of the Nine Network of Public Media, KETC, in St. Louis said that while funding for public radio and television is less than one one-hundredth of the federal budget, it is essential to the operations of the stations that receive it.

“Sometimes people will ask, will you survive if you lost federal funding?” Galmiche told the Beacon. “The answer is probably, but we would look very different. We would have a different line of content. We would not be able to offer the same arts and educational content we offer today.”

He noted that between its main channel and its education channel, the Nine Network offers 32 1-2 hours of high-quality educational programming every day.

“There is no other service that offers that level of content for children,” he said. “No other medium is dedicated to the education of children like we are.”

The Nine Network gets about 10 percent of its budget from federal funds, he said, but for smaller stations, that percentage can be 50 percent or even more. Many of those smaller stations serve minority communities, Galmiche said.

That support costs each American about $1.35 a year for public television and radio, he said, compared with a similar cost of about $200 annually for each person in the United Kingdom. “When you look at other countries around the world and the amount of money that goes to their non-commercial broadcasting,” Galmiche said, “we’re pretty much at the bottom of the list.”

Given the value for the money, he added, “it’s hard for me to imagine what Gov. Romney or his advisors are thinking about. The type of work we are doing to keep children in school, the programs we offer for children, the work we do in underserved communities is enormous.

"If the governor really looked into the work of public broadcasting today, he would find we are serving the American public in so many ways that no other media are doing. I think it shows a lack of understanding.”

Not to mention, he added, that polls show 69 percent of the American public oppose efforts to eliminate government support for public broadcasting.

Besides the fact that stations use federal money to leverage private donations, Galmiche said, it also helps to pay for the programming that they buy. If stations have to fold because their federal money dries up, he said, the ones that are left will have to pay a larger price for those programs.

In turn, they will be able to buy fewer shows, meaning less choice for their audience, and so on, in a spiral that could go downhill sharply and quickly.

And what’s wrong with Big Bird selling corn flakes?

“Is that what we want in America, content that is selling our kids things that don’t feed their minds but is just selling them products?” Galmiche said. “They need things that nourish their minds and tell them about healthy living.

“Under our license from the Federal Communications Commission, we can’t have content commercials, commercials for products, the kinds of ads that commercial stations can run. We think that’s good, to have a place you know and can trust that when you’re watching a program, we’re not going to sell you something.”

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