Mitt Romney’s vow to cut federal funding for PBS at last night’s debate — even as he said he “loved” Big Bird and liked debate moderator Jim Lehrer — has triggered a rebuke from public broadcasting advocates on Capitol Hill.
“Governor Romney’s call for the elimination of federal funding for public broadcasting during last night’s debate has generated an extraordinary — and overwhelmingly negative — public response,” Patrick Butler, president and CEO of the Assn. of Public Television Stations, said in a statement.
He noted that “Big Bird was the fourth most trafficked Twitter subject last night — after ‘Romney,’ ‘Obama,’ and ‘debate’ — and at its peak Big Bird was the subject of 17,000 tweets per minute.”
The debate quickly launched a Twitter handle: @FiredBigBird, with posts like, “Somewhere Paul Ryan is kicking over trash cans in hopes of smoking out Oscar the Grouch.”
PBS President Paula Kerger told CNN that she found it “unbelievable” that public broadcasting became the focus. “With the enormous problems facing our country, the fact that we are the focus is just unbelievable to me,” she said, while defending the network’s commitment to education.
PBS issued a statement this morning, saying that, “We are very disappointed that PBS became a political target in the Presidential debate last night. Governor Romney does not understand the value the American people place on public broadcasting and the outstanding return on investment the system delivers to our nation.”
The network added, “Numerous studies — including one requested by Congress earlier this year — have stated categorically that while the federal investment in public broadcasting is relatively modest, the absence of this critical seed money would cripple the system and bring its services to an end.”
A spokeswoman for the CPB was not immediately available. But the board has previously issued statements opposing calls to end public TV funding. Attorney Bruce Ramer, who has supported Romney, recently completed a two-year stint as chairman.
Romney has previously said that he would try to zero out money for PBS, which is made via a $445 million appropriation to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes funds to public stations and other entities.
At the debate, Romney said to Lehrer, a mainstay of public broadcasting, “I’m sorry, Jim, 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 — I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for. Thats number one.”
Sherrie Westin, executive vice president and chief marking officer of Sesame Workshop, told CNN that it receives “very, very little funding from PBS and the bulk comes from corporate support and licensing revenue. “So quite frankly, you can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting. 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,” she said. One of the points of conservatives has been that public broadcasting should be able to make up the difference in federal funding with private donations. While Sesame Workshop does that, advocates of funding say that a cut would threaten the stations that distribute the show.
For Big Bird’s part, the character offered a comment this morning via the “Sesame Street” Twitter feed: “My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?”