GOP candidate Mitt Romney opened the first presidential debate by declaring that he would cut the federal subsidy that helps fund the Public Broadcasting System. "I like Big Bird," Romney said, but he wasn't going to "borrow money from China to pay for it."
Critics pointed out that the federal funding for PBS was less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the federal budget and that saying you would cut public television funding to help fix the deficit was a grandstand play. "Fire Big Bird" became an instant pop meme on Facebook and Twitter. Saturday Night Live "interviewed" the big fowl, who insisted he hadn't meant to "ruffle any feathers." Har.
But making Big Bird the symbol of PBS trivializes the issue. Public television is part of the fabric of America. Sure, there is probably little need for public funding of old Brit-coms, but millions tune in for quality programming such as Nature and NewsHour and Ken Burns' epic mini-series and for quirky hits such as Antiques Roadshow. Just as important are PBS' educational shows for children: Sesame Street, The Electric Company, and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, to name three.
Studies have shown that children who watched Sesame Street in preschool were better readers in high school and got higher grades in English, math, and science. Preschool children who participate in a curriculum incorporating PBS children's programming are better prepared for kindergarten than those who don't. Public television is a cost-efficient, commercial-free way to educate masses of children.
In an essay for The Washington Post, Burns wrote: "With minimal funding, PBS manages to produce essential (commercial-free) children's programming as well as the best science and nature, arts and performance, and public affairs and history programming on the dial — often a stark contrast to superficial, repetitive and mind-numbing programming elsewhere."
For those who argue that commercial television can do the same job, I offer the following example: The Learning Channel was once owned by the federal government and NASA. It produced instructive and educational programs and was distributed for free. It was privatized in 1980 and now broadcasts such masterpieces as I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant and Honey Boo Boo. If we have to "borrow from China" to keep Honey Boo Boo Is Pregnant, Y'all off PBS, I say it's a small price to pay.