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No debate about it: Big Bird is small potatoes when it comes to federal budget

Pop culture Mitt Romney introduced Big Bird pop culture electicampaign after first presidential debate.  | AP

Pop culture Mitt Romney introduced Big Bird to the pop culture election campaign after the first presidential debate. | AP

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Updated: November 6, 2012 6:24AM

GOP nominee Mitt Romney sure ruffled some feathers — large, yellow ones — when he said during Wednesday’s presidential debate that he’d wipe out PBS’ federal funding.

Romney told veteran PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer, whose subpar performance as moderator wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for public broadcasting, that he likes PBS. And he loves Big Bird. But that wouldn’t stop him from shutting off the spigot that’s funneled federal tax dollars into PBS’ coffers since the network was founded more than 40 years ago.

Let’s channel one of Big Bird’s colleagues, Count von Count, and do some math: The federal government gave $445 million this year to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes that money to PBS and, to a lesser degree, NPR member stations across the country.

That $445 million works out to about 1/100 of 1 percent of the federal budget.

That’s like me saying I’m going to lose weight by trimming my nails.

I realize that $445 million, no matter how small a blip on the budget, is still a lot of cash. But if Uncle Sam put all of our money to this good of use, I’d voluntarily climb into the next income-tax bracket.

“Both candidates talked about the importance of education, and PBS is America’s biggest classroom,” said Dan Schmidt, president and CEO of WTTW-Channel 11, the most-watched public television station in the country, serving 65 percent of Illinois residents and reaching into parts of Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan.

Federal appropriations account for roughly 5 percent of WTTW’s $40 million annual budget, made up mostly of individual donations and support from corporations and foundations.

Other PBS affiliates, especially those in rural areas, rely much more on federal subsidies. While Big Bird would survive without federal money thanks to “Sesame Street’s” product sales and other revenue streams, those stations could go dark if Romney pulled the plug on funding, and PBS programming in general would suffer.

“We’re helping to raise the literacy rate in America and that’s been proven,” Schmidt said about PBS’ nearly 360 member stations. “We provide 22,000 curriculum-based educational programs in schools across America. We’re one of the only places where everyone can have access to performing arts and cultural events. And we’re increasingly the only place where you can get a brand of journalism that’s right down the middle and in-depth.”

In a nationwide Harris Interactive poll conducted earlier this year, PBS outscored ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News when it came to fairness in news coverage. It was named the most educational TV/media brand and the top provider of content for helping children build reading and math skills. Only military defense ranked above PBS as the best value for the U.S. tax dollar.

“This is not about the budget,” said Schmidt, adding that Republicans have had their sights set on PBS funding going back many years. “It’s an ideological issue for [Romney’s] base and it’s symbolic. He wants to be able to say he’s eliminated, whole cloth, entire programs. It’s an easy target.”

It’s also a touchy one, as evidenced by the flock of Big Bird memes, tweets and Facebook posts that continued to light up the Internet well into Thursday, when President Obama resurrected the issue at a campaign stop in Madison, Wis.

“I just want to make sure I’ve got this straight: He’ll get rid of regulations on Wall Street, but he’s going to crack down on ‘Sesame Street,’ ” Obama said of his opponent. “Thank goodness somebody’s finally cracking down on Big Bird. … Elmo’s got to watch out!”

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