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VOL. 36 | NO. 43 | Friday, October 26, 2012

Romney’s pledge to cut PBS funds fails to ruffle feathers of most voters

By John McBryde

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As a mom who has given birth to five children in three different decades, Shari Fox has seen many a Big Bird waddle across her TV screen.

The Franklin resident’s first three children were born in the 1980s, and she added two more in 1996 and 2002. So WNPT, Nashville’s PBS affiliate, has been a fixture in her home for not only the children’s programming, but also the documentaries, miniseries and other shows that are signatures of public broadcasting. In addition, Fox is a daily listener of NPR through its local affiliate, WPLN.

That’s where her affinity ends.

“I’m a big fan,” says Fox, vice president of academic affairs for O’More College of Design. “But I do not believe that they require public funding to operate, and I also can’t believe that they’d go off the air without the funding. I just think it’s tricky to use tax dollars these days for TV programming, when money is so tight. Maybe there was a time when it was appropriate, but not today when there are so many other options.”

The issue is not necessarily a hot-button topic for her in the upcoming presidential election, she adds, though as a fiscal conservative, she thinks it makes sense to defund the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, which oversees both public TV and radio.

What Romney Says

Fox agrees with Gov. Mitt Romney when he said in the first presidential debate earlier this month that, if elected, he would cut federal funding for the CPB.

In his comment, which Romney had made as an example for cutting what he considers non-essential items in the federal budget, the Republican candidate made reference to Big Bird, the iconic figure from the long-running PBS show “Sesame Street.” It set off a firestorm of opinions on both sides of the issue that continue to resonate in some manner or another.

What NPT’s Curley Says

Romney’s suggestion led to a rebuttal on the NPT website by its president and CEO, Beth Curley.

“Public television supporters in Nashville know that the children’s programming that public broadcasting supplies the community is only a small part of what we do,” Curley states. “A cut in the federal seed money provided to NPT and stations throughout the country would be devastating to the entire public broadcasting system.”

In a report published a few months ago by Current, the newspaper and website devoted to coverage of public broadcasting, it was estimated that 54 public TV stations in 19 states and 76 public radio stations in 38 states would be at high risk of going off the air if Congress voted to stop federal funding.

WMOT lost funding

Possible funding cuts are “the things that worry us every time we have an election sequence, because when money gets tight, it’s always one of the things they look at,” says Henri Pensis, director of broadcasting and station manager for WMOT, the public radio station at Middle Tennessee State University.

“It’s not going to solve the world’s ills if they drop that amount of money because it’s a very, very small percentage compared to other things. It’s an easy target.”

Funding for public broadcasting equals about one one-hundredths of one percent of the federal budget, according to a statement on the PBS website.

As it happens, WMOT lost federal funding about four years ago due to listenership qualifications not being met.

“We’ve had to make do without for a while, and it’s a whole lot easier if you have a little something extra to work with,” Pensis says. “It allows you to buy your key programs instead of having to scrape around trying to get money for those shows.”

Not a Major Issue

Big Bird, now about 43 years old, is a product of Sesame Workshop (formerly known as the Children’s Television Workshop), a nonprofit organization that works to promote learning among children.

A Rasmussen poll showed 66 percent of Americans don’t see the PBS and NPR funding issue as a major issue. Still, it does seem to serve as a key wedge between the two major political parties’ thoughts on government spending.

“From my perspective, it emphasizes the fact that we just do not know what the Romney/Ryan plan is going to be,” says Richard Exton, chair of the Davidson County Democratic Party. “Everything I read indicates that it doesn’t add up. The tax cuts they want to make could not be made up by closing loop holes or by defunding everything down to Big Bird.”

Counters Kevin Kookogey, chairman of the Williamson County Republican Party: “Big Bird will be fine with or without a taxpayer handout. The endowment for Sesame Street is more than sufficient for an entire flock of puppet birds.”

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