October 09, 2012
Forget Big Bird, What About Arthur?
Posted by Christine Hurt

Since the debate, my Facebook has been filled with status updates about fact-checking, polls and Sesame Street.  Whether Mitt Romney would kill Big Bird has become a big meme out there.  So, today I did some checking.  Don't worry about Big Bird.  Sesame Street is basically self-supporting, as any parent with Elmo DVDs, dolls, books and plastic kitchens knows.  I actually have a vintage Bert and Ernie I got at a garage sale -- not the most popular Seame Street guys now, though.  But of course Sesame Street and other popular shows get their start by getting production help from affiliate stations or PBS, which get grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a non-profit funded entirely by the federal government.  And, it's safe to say that many great shows would not get made without this type of funding.  The price tag is about $445 million a year, or (as the CPB website says, $1.35 per American), which covers all kinds of public media programming (radio and TV).

So, is it horrible for Romney to suggest cutting funding for CPB?  (I'm reminded of the great episode of West Wing in which Toby fights about this all day, loving every minute of it.)  I once heard someone say quite reasonably that our budget problems were not caused by sending malaria nets to Africa.  I guess we can add "or Sesame Street."  No, we all know what the big budget items are for the federal government and that very little can be done with the budget if those are left alone (Medicare, defense, Social Security, etc.).  But candidates aren't going to talk about cutting those things, so they will pick smaller things that might not annoy as many people, but that aren't going to amount to a lot unless you pick 1000 (or 2000 or 3000) similar things to cut.

Does the average American care about PBS?  Definitely my FB crowd seems to, if only symbolically.  Obviously, many Americans have a lot of TV/Internet/media choices when it comes to children's television, a lot more than in 1970.  Last year, the President of the Disney Channel, Carolina Lightcap (no relation to Buzz Lightyear), said that moms didn't want educational programming but instead wanted stories with social value.  This could mean several things -- they were good at teaching their little ones the alphabet and letter sounds, so maybe kids could just relax with a good story?  Hard to know, but Ms. Lightcap resigned soon after, but the social value programming is still going strong -- Jake and the Neverland Pirates, Doc McStuffins, and of course Phineas and Ferb.

OK, so I hate to say this, but I do care.  As a percentage, most of the shows we watch were funded by the government (I am the 47%).  Our kids basically watch Arthur and Phineas and Ferb, with a little Sid the Science Kid thrown in.  We love Arthur -- all of us, and how many shows are like that (well, besides Phineas and Freb).  The big kids don't watch Sid, but I wish they had when they were small -- teaching preschoolers the scientific method and empirical skills?  Without needing to read?  Wow.

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