Art in Paradise: I'm With the Bird

Recently, I checked out some re-issued episodes of Sesame Street from its first few seasons. For me, that was a nostalgic thing—The Count, Oscar, Kermit, and crew were integral to my own earliest years. Back then I knew that, somewhere out there, a giant yellow bird lived on the streets of New York and, freak of nature though an eight-plus-foot canary might be, he was good to the kids.

And so I took onboard with no little surprise that Mitt Romney also loves Big Bird, but would still like to defund him. Apparently, everything about the Republican presidential candidate on debate night was the product of endless scrutiny and rehearsal, so that line was quite calculated.

Never mind that, for everyone who was a preschooler between 1969 and now, the thought of taking out Big Bird smarts. Perhaps conservatives don’t get how beloved a figure he is. To set him up as a fall guy induces, in many of us, the same sort of pain Newt Gingrich might feel if someone threatened to banish all mention of that other star of stage and screen, Ronald Reagan.

Big Bird has never been overtly political, though, early on in his career, photos reveal that he hobnobbed with Pat Nixon. So why exactly have conservatives gone again and again to the well of defunding PBS? What’s so irritating about educational programming, British dramas involving drawing rooms, and science shows?

Maybe it’s the nearly communist lack of ads. Though recent years have in fact brought ads to PBS in the intervals between shows, European-style. Maybe it’s fear of the best reporting on television, Frontline. In the end, I suspect it’s down to the well Mitt Romney drew from incessantly at the first presidential debate. It seemed there was no problem that couldn’t, according to Romney, be solved by the magical hand of the free market, despite its clear mission to only produce profit.

PBS is a shining example of the success of the public sector, as evidenced by our culture-wide, generation-spanning awareness of an imaginary giant yellow bird. It’s easy to point out the absurdity of cutting government subsidy of PBS as a way to move the monetary needle, especially compared to huge expenses like military spending. Forbes explained it well: “For fiscal year 2010, federal funding for PBS through CPB [Corporation for Public Broadcasting] accounted for about 12 percent of PBS’ revenue. In terms of dollars, that works out to about $300 million. … For 2015, Congress has budgeted $445 million for CPB. That’s less than 1 percent of the budget. Way less. It’s about 1/100th of a 1 percent.”

It’s easy, too, to take the cartoon liberal position of clinging to a government-centric program. PBS’ mandate, after all, was to bring educational programming to people all over the country in an egalitarian way. Half-hearted market-based educational programming rarely, if ever, reaches the well-researched and unambiguous wholesomeness of Sesame Street. It works well, and has been popular for 43 years. Not bad.

All the same, what if conservatives finally gained the satisfaction of taking away 12 percent of PBS’ budget? The genie is already out of the bottle. A large portion of PBS’ funding comes from its audience. It’s a worthy investment, especially if, like me, you rely on an antenna for television. I get six channels, and four are PBS. Viewers like me know a good thing when they see it. It seems inevitable that most public stations would easily survive a Romney cut. PBS is in a position to continue precisely because it’s succeeded at being a people-first, non-profit conduit, an all-too-rare, unambiguously productive use of a largely wasted medium. Unfortunately, the stations that likely would not survive are the ones in rural, under-served locations where a good educational start is a ticket to a better economic future. Seems like a bad political bet for a businessman to take.

But if you must, go ahead, Romney. Take on the big yellow bird. He may seem like a patsy, but he is, after all, eight feet tall. I wouldn’t want to rouse that giant.

Author: James Heflin

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