Big Bird went to sleep early and missed landing in the center of a media frenzy touched off by Wednesday’s presidential debate.
Republican Gov. Mitt Romney said he loves the giant fictional character from “Sesame Street,” but that he would still slash funding to PBS if it means borrowing money from China to fund the station. Within minutes, tens of thousands of messages appeared on Twitter and online referring to the candidate’s comment — all while Big Bird caught some shut-eye.
“My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7,” read a comment attributed to Big Bird that was posted on Sesame Street’s Twitter feed Thursday morning. “Did I miss anything last night?”
All kidding aside, “Sesame Street” followed up the post with a statement pledging its support for the Public Broadcast Service and the connection it provides between children and the landmark program. Though declining to step into the fray of election-year politics, the show defended the publicly funded service as an integral part of its operation.
“At a time when improvements in school readiness are recognized as being much needed for a significant number of America’s preschoolers, PBS’s ability to connect Big Bird and Friends to these children is essential,” the statement reads. “We highly value that connection.”
Romney’s reference didn’t specifically mention the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — the private federally funded nonprofit organization that provides funding to PBS and National Public Radio among others. But his message has already struck a dissonant chord with the public broadcasting organizations that rely on federal funding to supplement revenue received from donors.
“It’s fascinating that when [Romney] is asked about where he’d make the cuts, the very first thing he mentions is PBS,” said Alan Chartock, president and chief executive officer of Northeast Public Radio in Albany, which derived about $417,000 or about a tenth of its budget in federal funding last year. “There’s no question that his vice president, [U.S. Rep] Paul Ryan, has NPR on the top of his list.”
In the Capital Region, WAMC and television’s WMHT are both federally funded through the public broadcasting corporation. And while the elimination of federal funding wouldn’t bankrupt either station, the loss would likely spell the elimination of programing.
“It’s an important piece of the puzzle but by no means the whole share of it,” said Robert Altman, the president and CEO of WMHT, which relies on $1.02 million in federal funding in 2011.
Altman said the federal funding his station receives amounts to slightly less than an eighth of his budget and helps him leverage for donations from the private sector. But moreover, he said the funding to WMHT and ultimately PBS helps air programs that are critical to the early education of children, in essence making it a public investment in the future.
“We think it’s a good investment and the majority of the public has said over and over again they think it’s a good investment as well,” he said.
In all, the federal budget provides about $450 million to the public broadcasting corporation, a figure Altman acknowledged as large. But in the grand scheme of government programs, the amount allocated for public broadcasting is a mere fraction of a percent in the overall budget.
“You’re not going to take care of the federal deficit on the back of public broadcasting,” Altman said. “There’s simply not enough money there to do it.”
And that is one of the reasons Romney’s statement drew immediate condemnation. Chartock blasted Romney’s statement as “incomprehensibly stupid” and said the candidate seemed to be making an appeal to right wing voters.
But Romney’s mention of Big Bird also helped WAMC in a way. Chartock said listeners immediately took issue with it and have been calling in droves to pledge support.
The station also immediately acquired Big Bird bean bags to distribute to donors giving a certain amount. Chartock said the gifts have kept the phones ringing ever since Romney mentioned the “Sesame Street” character.
“They’ve been going out the window like crazy,” he said of the bean bags.