The most memorable soundbite of last night’s first presidential debate involved Mitt Romney, public broadcasting, and a giant yellow muppet. Halfway through last night’s proceedings in Denver, the Republican nominee reiterated his long-standing plan to slash “unnecessary” parts of the federal budget. His targets? Obamacare, PBS News anchor and moderator Jim Lehrer (well into what would prove to be a trying evening, during which the candidates constantly interrupted him), and the popular Sesame Street character Big Bird:
"What things would I cut from spending?” Romney said. “I will eliminate all programs by this test: Is the program so critical it's worth borrowing money from China to pay for it? And if not, I'll get rid of it. Obamacare's on my list. ... 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 keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for [it]. "
Obamacare and poor Jim Lehrer aside, Twitter erupted in jokey defense of Big Bird. The #savebigbird hashtag immediately caught fire. Mentions of the giant yellow puppet on Twitter increased 800,000 percent, according to CNN. A slew of Big Bird Twitter avatars were born: @BigBirdLives, @BigBirdRomney, and @FiredBigBird among them.
But when the jokes died down, PBS’s status as a lightning rod for the debate over arts funding and federal budget priorities in general reemerged (Romney has also pledged to cut funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and Humanities). Adovcates for public arts pled their case, while opponents cited an old, popular stat about PBS CEO Paula Kerger’s salary. “Big Bird will starve?” Tweeted blogger David Burge, @iowahawkblog. “:The president of PBS makes $632k/year. I think she can afford to chip in for bird seed.”
But even if Romney cut the government’s PBS subsidy, it would hardly spell the demise of public broadcasting, much less Big Bird. As Forbes contributor and tax lawyer Kelly Phillips Erb points out, only about 12 percent of PBS’s funding, funneled through the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, comes from the government subsidy. 60 percent, meanwhile, comes from private donors and grants, as well as dues paid by PBS’s 350-plus member stations. Eliminating the $445 million set aside in the federal budget for PBS would be a blow, no question. But it wouldn’t be the end.
Furthermore, the budget benefits would be miniscule. The CPB’s two-year, $445 million government grant makes up less than 1/100th of a percent of a Federal Budget worth upwards of $3.5 trillion. Think Progress blogger Alyssa Rosenberg details all of the proposed arts funding in Obama’s 2013 budget, including subsidies for the Smithsonian Institute and the National Endowment for the Arts. The total funding is $1.55 billion, still a tiny fraction of overall spending.
So despite making a splash on Twitter, Big Bird’s fate won’t have nearly the same impact on government spending.