Romney was right: Big Bird needs to find a new nest
posted at 11:06 am on October 5, 2012 by Howard Portnoy
On Thursday, the day after President Obama received the second shellacking of his presidency, he was back in full smirk mode, telling a crowd in Denver, “We didn’t know that Big Bird was driving the federal deficit.” It was meant as sarcasm, but following a debate performance in which he appeared clueless about what does drive the deficit, it was perhaps an ill-advised “joke.”
The reference was to Mitt Romney’s response to a question by moderator Jim Lehrer on what actions each candidate would take to decrease the deficit. The GOP challenger replied that he would cut federal spending on non-essential programs that run up our debt to China, citing public broadcasting as an example. “I’m sorry, Jim,” he said, “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS. I like Big Bird.” As an afterthought, he added solicitously, “I actually like you, too.”
His comment touched a nerve at PBS, which released a statement on Thursday that read in part:
The federal investment in public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredth of one 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.
The statement also accused Romney of making public broadcasting a “political target,” though what could be more political than attempting to rally the troops behind your now largely superfluous government-funded job of four decades because it has been threatened?
Yes, PBS, which once provided unique television viewing, has become a redundancy in the age of alternatives to “basic” broadcast service. A study by the Television Bureau of Advertising finds that 90% of all TV households have either cable and satellite hookups. Alternatives to the sorts of cultural, entertainment, and educational programming offered by PBS are available up and down the dial—and, as a bonus, all are blessedly free of the irritating and lengthy donation appeals that heavily pepper many PBS specials.
But what of the 10% of families who have access only to over-the-airwaves TV? Isn’t it worthwhile investing a mere “hundredth of one percent of the federal budget” to keep Big Bird and Jim Lehrer on PBS for their sake? That hundredth of 1% equals $350 million expressed as a percentage of the budget for fiscal 2012. That amount may sound like a drop in the bucket in an era where we have all become accustomed to trillion-dollar deficits and discretionary spending in the billions, but then where do you draw the line?
The PBS statement boasts that 91% of all U.S. television households tune in to their local PBS station each year, and that their service is viewed by 81% of all children between the ages of 2 and 8. If the network is that popular, they should have no trouble finding sponsorship on commercial television.
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