HOUSTON—If you really want to ruffle some feathers, threaten to kick Big Bird out of the taxpayers’ nest.
When Mitt Romney mentioned the tallest and yellowest resident of Sesame Street during his first debate with President Barack Obama, his remark triggered a firestorm on social media and renewed a long-running debate over federal funding for public broadcasting. Twitter reported that Romney’s comment triggered more than 17,000 tweets a minute. And surprised public broadcasting executives scrambled to defend their federal subsidy.
“We are very disappointed that PBS became a political target in the Presidential debate last night,” PBS declared in a written statement. “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 moment that touched off the tempest came about a half-hour into the debate, as Romney articulated his commitment to cutting federal spending.
“I’m sorry, Jim,” Romney said to Jim Lehrer, the PBS newscaster who moderated the debate. “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
That touched what’s long been a sensitive nerve for a lot of conservative voters who consider government funding for public broadcasting an unessential expenditure of taxpayer dollars. And of course, many of them perceive a liberal bias in public broadcasting newscasts.
“Channel 11 doesn’t have a newscast unless it makes a profit,” argued State Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, the longtime conservative talk radio host. “I have a radio station. We’re not on the air unless we make a profit. PBS needs to be held to those same standards.”
“I think they think of it, of course, as a liberal bastion,” said Bob Stein, the Rice University political scientist and KHOU analyst. “They’ve always felt the public network is something only liberals and fuzzy headed academics like myself watch.”
At the University of Houston, home to the nation’s first public television station, executives said losing federal funding would certainly hurt, but it also wouldn’t drive them off the air. But they say the fiscal impact would be much more severe in smaller communities throughout the state and nation that don’t have Houston’s broad base of individual and corporate donors.
“It’s very difficult to even forecast what the impact would be. I feel very strongly that, locally, we would find a way, but the system is so very much a part of every local station. And many stations in Texas would be so greatly impacted,” said Lisa Shumate, the General Manager for Houston Public Media.
In the 2012 fiscal year, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting granted KUHT-TV roughly $1.65 million, which station officials said accounted for 16 percent of their revenue for television. KUHF Radio received a little more than $600,000 in CPB grants, which reportedly accounted for 7 percent of the station’s budget. Next year, an undetermined amount of federal funding will also go to KUHA-FM, the classical music station UH recently bought from Rice University.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting received $445 million in federal funds for the current fiscal year. Public broadcasting officials argue that’s a drop in the bucket in a $3.7 trillion federal budget.
“It’s a rounding error,” Shumate said.
Nonetheless, many conservatives agree with Romney. They like Big Bird, but they want to pull his beak out of the public trough.
“Look, I’m a supporter of PBS, personally,” Patrick said. “I support their fund drives. I love a lot of their programming. But we just don’t have the luxury anymore to have luxuries in government.”