Why I stand with Big Bird.
October 5, 2012 by Bill Palmer
I stand with Big Bird.
There’s sudden talk of killing off federal funding to PBS, which would endanger the ability of shows like Sesame Street to remain on the air in certain markets or at all. It’s long been a popular target of certain politicians who want to show they mean business when it comes to reducing federal spending and bringing down the deficit. That’s a nice idea, but targeting Big Bird doesn’t add up in terms of math or societal impact. Let’s take a look at what’s really going on here…
The numbers are, for once, quick and easy. PBS accounts for 0.012% of the federal budget. Cutting off all of that funding wouldn’t so much as make a dent in the deficit. Those who believe that such minuscule cuts “add up” simply don’t understand the math of it. Each American pays about ten cents per month to keep Big Bird alive. It’s the dime you drop and don’t bother to pick up because your hands are too full and the floor is too dirty. So let’s not pretend this is a budget issue…
No more numbers, I promise. There’s a reason why PBS has to be publicly funded: it airs the kind of programming which, while of high quality and enjoyed by millions of Americans, is of the type which either can’t – or shouldn’t – attract advertisers. When PBS delivers a night at the symphony, let’s just say that airing music on television isn’t something that advertisers line up to get behind (ever wonder why MTV rarely shows music videos anymore?) regardless of how many people tune in. And when it comes to something like Sesame Street and a host of other vital PBS children’s shows, the fact that they are primarily educational and not overly commercialized is due directly to the fact that they’re not corporate backed. Even the best of kids shows on Disney are more entertainment than educational because Disney is a for-profit operation and needs to air content that it can sell advertising on (and kids can’t watch Disney unless their parents can afford cable). So we don’t get to have a show like Sesame Street unless we fund it directly. And since individual donations are unpredictable and are therefore unreliable, it takes a dime out of everyone’s pocket to keep Big Bird on air instead.
So if public funding for Sesame Street is necessary and is so tiny that it’s not a real budget or deficit issue anyway, why do certain politicians keep targeting it specifically? That’s another matter…
Saying you’re going to fix the deficit by killing off PBS first is like saying you’re going to clear out space in your five hundred gigabyte hard drive by throwing away a word processing file, as cleverly quipped last night by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, whose popular science specials on PBS would never attract enough corporate advertisers to survive on their own. Politicians all know that, and so making an example out of PBS is mere misdirection aimed at fooling the kind of people who don’t know much about the budget: if I tell these dummies I’m firing Big Bird then they’ll think I’m serious about budget cuts whether I am or not. Then I can do anything I want once they stop paying attention.
But it runs deeper than that. Local PBS affiliates in affluent areas around the nation might still survive on the donations of local wealthy viewers alone. But it’s a virtual certainty that local PBS affiliates in poor neighborhoods would be shuttered immediately. So even if Big Bird did manage to survive the end of his federal funding, poor kids would grow up without him; only the wealthy kids would still get to watch Sesame Street and gain the educational benefit of what we all got out of growing up with it. Politicians all know this as well. So when they target Big Bird, what they’re saying is that they don’t care about the education of poor kids. Extrapolate on that however you like.
We decided long ago – in fact the founding fathers decided – that every American kid would get a chance to go to school and get an education, and that schools would be publicly funded to make sure that poor kids get the same educational opportunity as the rich kids. We all pay for it collectively. It’s the price you pay for an educated and ultimately civilized society. Those wealthy parents who want to send their kids to expensive private schools have the option to do so. But we don’t make a kid sit home from kindergarten because his parents are broke. Argue all you want about the merit or efficiency of the overall school system. But when it comes to PBS, it costs each of a us a dime and it ensures that our kids and everyone else’s kids will grow up learning a thing or two from Sesame Street. One could argue that PBS is the one small piece of the public education system which is both inexpensive and a complete success. If anything, we should be having great debates about whether the budget for PBS should be expanded in these times when more parents can’t afford private preschool and the amount of quality corporate-backed children’s television continues to dwindle. Even doubling it or tripling PBS funding still wouldn’t represent a serious concern in the overall federal budget. Again, politicians on both sides of the aisle know that.
When a politician tries to show he means business on the budget by targeting Big Bird, he knows that there’s no monetary reason to do so, and he knows that there’s every societal reason not to. In doing so, he’s either trying to mislead the least informed voters who can’t do the math, or by touting a move which would give rich kids an educational advantage over other kids, he may be channeling something much darker. That’s up to voters to decide. All I know is this:
I stand with Big Bird. And you should too.