Romney Vs. Big Bird; How Much Do 'Sesame Street' And PBS Really Cost?

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Mitt Romney made it clear during Wednesday night’s debate that if he’s elected he’ll slash federal spending by cutting programs like the Environmental Protection Agency and Big Bird (i.e. PBS). A giant yellow puppet that helps children learn to read and how to be nice to each other may not seem like a political target, but thanks to Romney’s comments, the “Sesame Street” character was pushed to the forefront of debate.

"What things would I cut from spending?” Romney said. “I will eliminate all programs by this test: Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it. Obamacare's on my list. ... I'm sorry, Jim [Lehrer], 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 keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

Romney’s pledge to put Big Bird on the unemployment line isn't quite what it appears to be, though. The Christian Science Monitor reports that only 12 percent of PBS funding comes from the federal subsidy that Romney wants to eliminate --  roughly $445 million. Other news outlets reported that federal dollars only make up 10 percent of PBS funding.

Even though public broadcasting is already on a tight budget, PBS would survive because of the 60 percent of its funding that comes from private donors and corporate and foundation grants as well as the dues that are paid by more than 350 PBS stations.

What some may overlook about Romney vs. Big Bird is that the $445 million the government would save is peanuts when it comes to the national debt. The $445 million is a start, but it’s less than 1/100th of a percent of the $3.5 trillion federal budget. PBS funding pales in comparison to the $1 trillion-plus deficit, according to Business Insider.  

Part of the resentment from conservatives could stem from their perception that public broadcasting – a term that encompasses NPR as much as it does PBS – has a liberal bias. Bias is notoriously tough to measure, and research has been scant, but earlier this year the Freakanomics podcast compiled statistics for an episode titled, “How Biased Is Your Media?”

On a scale of 0 to 100, with 100 being the most liberal coverage, NPR’s "Morning Edition" show ranked at 66.3, only six points above the famously conservative Drudge Report’s 60.4 rating. By comparison, the "CBS Evening News" ranked in at 73.7 and Brit Hume's Fox News show at 39.7.

PBS executive vice president Sherrie Westin told CNN the threats to federal funding affect PBS, but losing  it wouldn’t necessarily be fatal.

“So quite frankly, you can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting,” she said. "But when they always try to tout out Big Bird, and say we’re going to kill Big Bird – that is actually misleading, because 'Sesame Street' will be here.”

The Nieman Journalism Lab reported that the per capita spending on public broadcasting is $4 a year, and noted that government subsidies have helped newspapers survive since the 1970s.

“They help keep afloat struggling newspapers and create a diversity of opinion. In some cases, they are even sponsoring innovation online,” the Nieman Lab wrote. It added that there are buffers in place to prevent media outlets from sacrificing any independence for government dollars.

Dean Obeidallah of CNN wrote that despite its small government cost, PBS might be worth keeping around.

“Maybe Mitt Romney and the rest us simply had a different childhood. To be brutally honest, when I was a child, my family couldn't afford day care and often TV was a substitute for that,” Obeidallah wrote. “The neighbor upstairs would be around for emergencies, but my sister and I would be plopped in front of the TV -- and particularly ‘Sesame Street.’”

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