In Defense of Big Bird

Michael Hagan ’15

After making a case for the morality of public spending cuts, Mitt Romney named several programs he would axe in order to “encourage economic growth.” Predictably enough, the first program named was (say it with me) – Obamacare! What followed this familiar line, though, was a little more unusual and perhaps much more revealing on Romney’s part.

“I’m sorry, Jim, I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep spending money on things, borrowing money from China to pay for it.”

Thus our familiar, feathery childhood friend found his way into the realm of presidential politics. The dismissal of the essentiality of federal funding for public broadcasting is not new. Many pro-austerity politicians, after seeing one too many British sitcoms rerun on their local Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) affiliate, have challenged federal funding before. They argue that private donations will sustain PBS; after all, the funds allocated by the quasi-government Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) only represent 15% of the total PBS budget. They defer to the market, saying that if there is truly a need, it will be met privately; why waste the public dollar on an anachronism?

Their attacks rest on false assumptions and reveal either shameful ignorance or deliberate neglect. Perhaps they are, for lack of research, ignorant to the kind of support the CPB provides to PBS. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting was launched as part of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. It was and remains an answer to the gap in availability of quality, informative, and age-appropriate entertainment to Americans of every age group. Before the CPB, public broadcasting was available only to communities willing and, more importantly, able to sustain it through viewer support. The CPB brings public broadcasting to markets where viewers can’t afford to sustain a television station by the time they put dinner on the table. These are the PBS stations that rely on federal aid for as much as half of their overall budget. Arguably, it is in these more impoverished markets where public broadcasting is most vital.

Defunding the CPB will not end public broadcasting as we know it. You, Mitt Romney, and I will likely still have access to the safest and most educational television programming available for children, as well as a diverse line-up of enriching programs for adults. Many Americans won’t, though. Only children in affluent markets will meet Big Bird, travel to Elmo’s world, and have their favorite show brought to them by “The Letter J.” Entire cities of children will never hear the memorable jingle, “Having fun isn’t hard, when you’ve got a library card!”

Don’t worry though, the free market, as always, will provide a solution! Ah yes, rest easy- iCarly can replace Sesame Street! Don’t have cable? Well, sorry kids, looks like you’ll just have to wait for Saturday morning. Don’t be sad, all of your learning and laughing with your favorite shows over a bowl of cereal or afternoon snack was inhibiting private sector growth. C’mon kids, everybody’s got to pay their fair share.

If you just cringed, you understand that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is a legacy of an era when positive social change, independent of but complementary to overall economic growth, was a priority for lawmakers. Mitt Romney shows his true colors when he places this key agent of social progress in the United States second among programs that would not survive his administration.

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