Liam Day adds some much-needed logical thinking to the debate about whether Mitt Romney wants to kill off Big Bird.
I won’t pretend it isn’t good politics. It provided a readymade soundbite for the President in the days immediately following the debate—though it would have been far more effective if he’d thought to offer it during the debate itself—as well as some amusing memes on Facebook, the one with Hillary Clinton in particular.
But what I can’t pretend is that the indignant outrage over Mitt Romney’s threat to fire Big Bird during last week’s presidential debate isn’t somewhat overheated. As synecdoche, the incident works because it can be used as a very concrete crystallization of the larger narrative that fits the former consultant and Bain Capital head who says he likes to fire people. But that’s the thing. If the federal government eliminated funding for PBS, would Big Bird find himself on the unemployment line, as another Facebook meme predicts? The answer is no.
Sesame Workshop, which produces the eponymous children’s show, earned $47 million last year in licensing and merchandise. For the last year I can find an IRS form 990, its CEO was paid a salary of $984,000. Though technically a non-profit, the workshop is big business and no more deserving of a federal subsidy than big oil or agribusiness, both of which I recognize the government subsidizes. Moreover, even if we were to assume that Sesame Workshop could not survive without its government contribution, why would we think another network wouldn’t pick the show up. Sesame Street is one of the most recognizable brands in the world. My guess is that more than one network would be happy to make room for it in its schedule and, in fact, pay handsomely for the right to do so.
The larger question becomes, then, not what would happen to Big Bird, but to PBS more generally. Would it be able to survive without the $445 million the federal government is due to kick in this fiscal year? The short answer is that depends. Bear in mind that the $445 million will be spread across a national network of local radio and television stations. Some of the larger PBS outlets, such as WGBH in Boston, where I live, would most likely be fine. They might have to tighten their belts a little bit, but their federal outlay is a rather small portion of their overall budget and, if the construction of their gaudy new $85 million studio and headquarters is any indication, they would be able to recoup it through their private fundraising efforts.
Smaller, more rural stations on the other hand would probably disappear. They rely much more heavily on the federal subsidy. If defenders of public broadcasting want to defend the line item, this is the argument they should be making, that cutting federal funding to PBS would have a disparate impact on more rural areas, many of which already suffer from a dearth of educational opportunities for children. But let’s not pretend that what Mitt Romney said during last week’s debate portends the end of Big Bird and Sesame Street. They’ve been around for more than 40 years and will, I suspect, federal funding or no federal funding, be around for another 40.