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Dead Tree Alert: Big Bird Is a Republican

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Big Bird: PBS/Photofest

Sesame Street (PBS) 1969 - present Shown: Big Bird, Ernie

OK, he’s not, literally. (Though he was the first one to see the elephant. Coincidence?) But as I write in my print TIME column this week, one thing that’s been lost in the debate over PBS funding is that PBS not only serves many, many conservatives among its audience but operates according to several small-c conservative principles and values. Think of Big Bird—of PBS generally—as a late-’60s, Nelson Rockefeller / George Romney Republican, believing that government can have a role in serving the underserved with prudently managed programs that offer a lot of bang for the buck.

A few points I make in the column:

* It’s true, as those who want to cut PBS funding say, that Sesame Street and Big Bird would survive. (Which is why it’s mind-boggling to me that Mitt Romney has gone out of his way to bring Big Bird’s name into the discussion, going back to the primaries.) What they don’t say is who would lose out: red-state viewers, in rural, lower-income parts of the country that reliably vote Republican. Big Bird will survive, but you may no longer have a station to watch him on in Montana. Very little “PBS” money goes to the national organization; really, the federal funding is a support for viewers in mostly Republican states.

* Public broadcasting, in the U.S., is fiscally conservative. To analogize it to health care, it’s not a massive, expensive single-payer system like the BBC. It uses a very small amount of seed money—$445 million in a nearly $4 trillion budget‚to leverage far more in private charitable and corporate donations. If you ran the public schools the same way, Newt Gingrich would do cartwheels.

* Public broadcasting is decentralized and de-federalized. In commercial TV, a central network like NBC calls the shots, makes the shows, and largely tells affiliates what to do. In public TV, local stations make shows, set their schedules (hence “check local listings”) and, by law, get most of the federal funding. The decisions are made locally, just as Romney says he’d prefer for health care.

* Public TV is culturally conservative. One of the few places where crunchy progressives and family-values conservatives have common ground—besides homeschooling—is a distrust of commercialized TV, especially where their kids are concerned. It may be for different reasons (liberals focus on violence, conservatives on sex, e.g.) but I get surprisingly similar feedback from parents on the left and right about not wanting their kids exposed to crass pop culture and relentless commercialism and advertisements. And for the reasons above, red-state conservatives are among the most likely to lose access to chaste, ad-free PBS if the government stops funding it.

Personally, because I live in New York City, I’ll have relatively well-funded public TV no matter what, thanks to the many fine, evil corporations and 1%-ers who pump money into my civic institutions! And frankly, the shows might be better then; my longstanding problem with PBS is that its programming is too bland and timid, largely because of political pressures.

But that may be the tradeoff for having public TV that reaches 100% of the public. Certainly, if people take a look at what would actually happen if the government cut off PBS and still want to end its funding, that’s their right. But it would be ironic if, in the name of conservative principles, we weakened one of the most frugal, least radical outlets in the TV business.

Update: By the way, for an intelligent argument against funding PBS—from an advocate of progressive government programs and stimulus, no less—go read Michael Grunwald at Swampland.