Tuned In

Arthur Goes to Washington: The War Over Public Broadcasting Begins, Again

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As the debate over the federal budget intensifies in Washington, Republican lawmakers have targeted—again—funding for public broadcasting. Those who want to make the cuts would like the public to see them as taking on a group of privileged elitist liberals, who do not deserve taxpayer dollars to chat about their Volvos and congratulate one another on firing Juan Williams. Historically, however, such attempts have put them on the bad side of a p.r. war against some of America’s most beloved children’s characters—one of whom, Arthur, showed up at an event on Capitol Hill to protest the potential funding cuts.

There’s an obvious advantage for public-broadcasting defenders, like Rep. Ed Markey above, to make the fight about Arthur, Big Bird et al; people love them, their kids love them, and PBS’ children’s programming is probably its most well-regarded offering. And despite the optics, some conservatives are also willing to frame the debate in terms of those popular shows—insofar as they make the argument that very popular franchises like Sesame Street do not need public support to thrive. (Though they would most likely not exist in the first place without public money.)

The irony is that the kinds of programming, on public radio and TV alike, that depend most on public monies tend to get the least attention in the debate—local programming, documentaries, literacy programs &c. They’re also less telegenic and well-known, and so they get shunted aside—but whether you think they’re worth it or not, they’re the kinds of offerings most at stake in the budget fight.

What I find puzzling, as a political layman, is that these fights historically end up with the GOP retreating from bad publicity over being demonized for trying to kill Elmo—yet conservative budget-cutters seem to believe that it’s a winning argument to take on cuddly Muppets directly. “Make no mistake, public broadcasting’s furry friends are political animals,” South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint writes on his blog. Citing Arthur’s appearance on the Hill, he adds, “At this rate, Americans can expect Big Bird to start filming commercials to hype ObamaCare.  If the FCC can borrow Elmo from PBS to build support for their plans, what’s to stop the Department of Health and Human Services from feeding Big Bird some lines?”

The argument probably plays to DeMint’s conservative constituency—and frankly, though I don’t begrudge my tax dollars going to public broadcasting, I do find it unsettling to see Arthur share a Democratic stage, as much as I would his supporting a GOP event. But call me crazy, I’m just not sure that taking an Oscar-the-Grouch stance with beloved children’s characters will play among the broader public any better than it has in the past.

But maybe times have indeed changed, and DeMint is not alone. Over at Tucker Carlson’s The Daily Caller, a columnist decried how Republicans were portrayed in similar showdowns during the Clinton era: “Republicans wanted to starve children, throw old people on the street, and kill Big Bird. The fact that Big Bird is a fictional television character and not a real animal is irrelevant.” Yes, that’ll win the hearts and minds! You stupid people! Can’t you see that he’s just full of stuffing? [Riiiiip!] There! Look at him!

The proposed funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in the new budget, by the way, is $451 million—a fraction of a fraction of a $3.7-trillion budget, which actually proposes other cuts in public broadcasting. But expect to see Sesame Street and company continue to lead the debate, brought to you by the letters PR.