CHICAGO — I love Big Bird.
We go way back, as far into my childhood as I can remember. Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, and the crew at Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood were among the first who ever spoke to me in English.
Oh, there were others: Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumley, Underdog and, of course, Woody Woodpecker and Tom and Jerry. But though I still have a taste for over-the-top cartoon violence (really, is there anything funnier than a chubby-cheeked mouse setting fire to an egotistical cat’s tail?), it was the gentle folks over at PBS who taught me my numbers, how to sound my vowels, and how to pronounce an “r” — in English.
And PBS’ molding of my good character hasn’t ended. I’ve spent countless hours with cooking shows, classical music concerts, science specials, documentaries and plenty of news shows on both PBS and NPR. Trust me, you’re reading the words of a true fan.
And as a true fan I have to say: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting should give up its government funding.
In the days since Mitt Romney invoked the name of Big Bird to make the point that the country has better things to spend its money on than “Sesame Street,” I’ve read news articles detailing what a small, insignificant part of the federal budget the Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s $445 million allotment is.
In only a few places will you find the corresponding statistics that PBS gets only 15 percent of its budget from government funds and NPR just 2 percent. And if you look hard enough, you’ll learn that, far from being in danger of going out of business, the Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit organization that produces “Sesame Street,” is a successful financial venture with $130 million in revenue. A little over a third of this revenue is derived from licensing Elmo, Big Bird and other PBS Kids favorites through clothing, accessories and toy sales.
Romney misstepped in calling Big Bird out by name and should have followed up with something snappy like: “The president has cut NASA’s annual budget by about $760 million in the last two years. How about I send the money over there?” But once everyone conjured the image of Big Bird on the unemployment line, it was all over.
Still, as Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of the libertarian Reason.com said on NPR’s “On the Media” (one of my favorite weekly treats) back in 2010, “The idea that we have an inalienable right to ‘Car Talk’ or to ‘Sesame Street’ on tax-supported airwaves strikes me as a stretch. And it’s time to rethink that — not because those are bad programs but because they’re not core functions of government and they will be funded via other avenues.”
And those other avenues have to be the pockets of fans — fans so committed to the important, high-quality and endlessly entertaining content that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting puts out that they want not just unfettered access to it but to fund it well enough so that it can remain free to anyone who wants to be enriched by it.
Gillespie said that if the government finally turned off the spigot he would get out his checkbook to help make up for the funding shortfall, and I and many others certainly would.
In this full-subscription scenario, PBS and NPR would no longer have to have those dreaded pledge weeks (oh how I hate it when “A Prairie Home Companion’s” mid-episode “Powdered Milk Biscuits” song gets interrupted!).
No, if these networks played their cards right, they’d harness a movement to keep intelligent, life-affirming, boundary-expanding content available to the current and next generations. It would be led by people like me who are sick and tired of hearing politicians threaten the taxpayer subsidies as a fun diversion from real issues they should be tackling.
Anything less would prove that Big Bird’s defenders are only as good as their nostalgia-driven lip service. Real supporters will put their money where their outrage is and eliminate any concerns about getting the Corporation for Public Broadcasting off the government dole.
Esther Cepeda is syndicated columnist and an NBC Latino Contributor.