Political Animal


January 05, 2012 9:20 AM Big Bird’s boss weighs in

By Steve Benen

Last week, Mitt Romney relied on a standard conservative talking point to make a point about the budget: he’s eyeing changes to public television.

“I like PBS,” the Republican said. “We subsidize PBS. Look, I’m going to stop that. I’m going to say, ‘PBS is going to have to have advertisements.’ We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have advertisements, all right?”

Well, no, perhaps it’s not all right. This week, PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger weighed in.

Kerger says PBS understands that these are hard economic times and tough decisions have to be made. But PBS, she says, has always had bipartisan support in large part because it is an “effective public/private partnership.” “I think that what we hope to do is to make it clear that we have broad support from the American public.”

It’s also, she says, cost-effective support. PBS only gets, in aggregate, 15 percent of its budget from the federal government — but it’s a percentage that is vital to smaller, poorer, mostly rural stations. “That money cannot be made up. We try to leverage it very carefully.”

As for Romney’s suggestion that the service run ads, Kerger points out that PBS couldn’t do that even if it wanted to — it would violate FCC regulations. But even more, she says, changing PBS to an ad-supported network would inevitably change what it airs because the network would be forced to show programs that attract advertiser-friendly crowds.

Perhaps Romney didn’t think this one through. More likely, he just doesn’t care, and he knows the far-right has some odd hang-up about public television.

But what I found even more interesting than his Big Bird comments was the larger context.

Romney wasn’t asked about public television; his comments came during a town-hall event in Iowa when he was talking about balancing the federal budget. In other words, when addressing how he’d reduce the deficit, the very first substantive idea Romney raised had nothing to do with taxes, entitlements, or the Pentagon budget, but rather, “Big Bird is going to have advertisements.”

Unless Romney envisions PBS charging hundreds of billions of dollars for commercials, this is the kind of comment that reinforces concerns over his willingness to be serious about public policy.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • c u n d gulag on January 05, 2012 9:28 AM:

    They hate PBS because of its Civil Rights issues - they feel that people, like puppets, have every right to live in a garbage can.

    And they hate "The Count," because he loves to, well, "to count," and can, accurately.
    And we all know that math has a notorious fact-based Liberal bias. And this is Liberals indoctrinating little children.

    And that frogs should stay with frogs, and pigs with pigs - and that Miss Piggy's crush on Kermit is some sort of Muppet Miscegenation!

  • Mark-NC on January 05, 2012 9:31 AM:

    Romney doesn't have to think things through - he's a Republican. Outside of blogs like this, you will likely NEVER hear that his suggestion is illegal, impractical, and downright stupid. More likely, you'll hear what a bold thinker he is and that he's making the tough calls for America.

    I'd like to see Obama (no other Dem gets any traction) inform the public that the public financing part is primarily to extend coverage to rural America (or as Republicans call it - real 'merica). They would be hurting themselves mostly by making this bluster come true.

  • martin on January 05, 2012 9:31 AM:

    Better yet Mitt, how about having all of those commercial tv and radio stations start coughing up for their use of the public airwaves?

  • biggerbox on January 05, 2012 9:33 AM:

    Given his track record at Bain, I expect his real plan is to fire Big Bird and Grover, break up PBS and sell the parts. Disney will get the Sesame Street sets, and Faux News will buy the table from the NewsHour.

  • Anonymous on January 05, 2012 9:34 AM:

    "Perhaps Romney didnít think this one through. More likely, he just doesnít care, and he knows the far-right has some odd hang up about public television."

    Perhaps Republicans just hate their own country and would be much happier living with their religious cousins in Saudi Arabia.

  • Foster Grant on January 05, 2012 9:40 AM:

    BB hasn't been on the program for long while. He's now on a different Street, specializing in M&A and wealth accumulation.

    Why does Mittney hate little children?

  • walt on January 05, 2012 9:40 AM:

    When it comes to solving the budget crisis, Republicans go directly to the Big Ticket items: PBS, NPR, the National Endowment for the Arts, and AMTRAK.

  • John in TX on January 05, 2012 9:43 AM:

    "I'm going to say, 'PBS is going to have to have advertisements.' We're not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird's going to have advertisements, all right?"

    Shorter Romney: "PBS is giving these layabout, unemployed, freeloading preschoolers something for free, and I won't have it!"

  • Danp on January 05, 2012 9:44 AM:

    Can CSPAN be far behind? "And now we go to the House where Michelle Bachmann and Steve King are discussing a one-world monetary policy. Brought to you by..." HEAD ON. APPLY DIRECTLY TO THE FOREHEAD. HEAD ON. APPLY DIRECTLY TO THE FOREHEAD. HEAD ON. APPLY DIRECTLY...

  • T2 on January 05, 2012 9:48 AM:

    Conservatives hate PBS because they can't control its message. Bush tried, by installing a Right Winger to run it....and he made a mess. Obviously there is no major money to be saved here, just another Right Wing notch on their gun.....

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on January 05, 2012 9:50 AM:

    Unless Romney envisions PBS charging hundreds of billions of dollars for commercials

    Hey, those SuperPACs will leave no television station uncovered. Pre-schoolers, socker-mom's, and snobby Masterpiece Theatre watchers need to have some learnin' thrown at them too.

  • Bernard HP Gilroy on January 05, 2012 9:53 AM:

    Mark-NC on January 05, 2012 9:31 AM:
    >> the public financing part is primarily to extend coverage to rural America (or as Republicans call it - real 'merica). They would be hurting themselves mostly by making this bluster come true.

    Ah, that's the joy of the rabid right. They get to rail about the injustices foisted on "real America", inveigle about welfare, then turn around and take the pork, because they know that the "loony left" is actually the compassionate ones and we're still going to fund their ridiculous way of life.

  • Kathryn on January 05, 2012 9:54 AM:

    Gulag has a point, can't have mixed animal couples, just ask Santorum, the diversity specialist. You suggest that Mitt might not have thought this one through Steve. Respectfully, does Mitt ever think many of his positions through? His opinion pieces have been frighteningly clueless..

    Speaking of Mitt, I watched a tiny bit of his speech in Iowa after his "victory" when he started reciting the lyrics of America the Beautiful. Then last night Colbert showed him doing the same thing at various other campaign events. Good grief, what's wrong with him, his family appeared slightly stricken, when he went into the second stanza. He is the strangest life form ever to run for President, no wonder he can't get over 25%.

  • Kane on January 05, 2012 9:55 AM:

    Romney doesn't answer direct questions. Watch the debates and listen to the questions and his answers.

    Q: If you were president, you would have vetoed the debt-ceiling bill?

    Romney: Look, I'm not going to eat Barack Obama's dog food. What he served up is not what I would have as president of the United States ... I would have cut federal spending, capped federal spending and then worked for a balanced-budget amendment.

    Q: Does the government have the right to make a citizen buy a good or service (as in the individual mandate under your Massachusetts health care plan)?

    Romney: I think you have to repeal ObamaCare, and I will. I'll put in place a plan that allows states to craft their own programs.

    Q: Would you sign a bill to extend unemployment insurance?

    Romney: Surely, we're going to help those people who can't find other ways to care for themselves, but the most important thing we're talking about tonight is making sure that President Obama is replaced by someone who can get the economy going again. That's what this debate is really about.

    Dodge. Dodge. Dodge. And then the pundits and talking-heads declare that he won the debate!

  • June on January 05, 2012 9:56 AM:

    What @T2 said.

  • Rich2506 on January 05, 2012 9:58 AM:

    This is a problem that goes all the way back to Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign for the presidency (And probably long before). Reagan sounded real confident when he asserted that the government was throwing away billions and billions in "fraud, waste and abuse," but when he was asked to substantiate his statement, he did the ol' shuck & jive and the fast-foot shuffle. In his first year, he deleted about 1% of the Federal Budget and the rest...wel-l-l-l, he never found many things worth cutting after that and instead cranked up the budget to award arms manufacturers big contracts.

  • DAY on January 05, 2012 10:02 AM:

    "PBS only gets, in aggregate, 15 percent of its budget from the federal government "
    What percentage of THEIR budget does Halliburton get from the federal government?

    @Kane: It ain't just Romney that offers platitudes instead of specifics! They all do it, ad nauseam.

  • bleh on January 05, 2012 10:08 AM:

    Unless Romney envisions PBS charging hundreds of billions of dollars for commercials, this is the kind of comment that reinforces concerns over his willingness to be serious about public policy.

    Well of course, that is EXACTLY what he envisions, followed by "privatization," no doubt under terms extremely favorable to personal friends of his.

    Socially stunted "businessmen" like Romney do not understand concepts taught in post-101 economics, like market failure, public goods, or oligopoly. To them, greed is good, the market is magic, and the world -- and its people -- are nothing more than resources waiting to be plundered.

  • beep52 on January 05, 2012 10:19 AM:

    It's all about the message. If PBS broadcast old testament religion, we'd hear no bitching from the right.

  • bigtuna on January 05, 2012 10:28 AM:

    Two of the offices that were closed with Reagan - Gingerich - Clinton era policies were
    the US Bureau of Mines, which did 100 yrs of resource -analyses and mine safety research (oops) and the Office of Technology Assessment, which provided congress advice and information on various issues regarding technology. Killed in 1995.

    On the latter closure, I once saw a talk by an OTA staffer, and it was one of the best presentations I ever saw from a US govt person.

    I bet that one could examine the economic impacts of the closures of these two agencies, and make a case that the benefits of these agencies would far outweigh the 'savings' from their closure.

    But of course, these offices, like NPR, PBS, etc., impart - what is that word ? Ah - knowledge, which the radical republican party of Willard detests.

    what god damn fools.

  • jjm on January 05, 2012 10:33 AM:

    Romney is an ass. That's really all you can say about him.

    I see where the Koch Brothers are going to spend millions of dollars to create a right wing clone of ThinkProgress: ThinkBackwards, my mate calls. Romney should fit right in as 'expert' once he loses the election.

  • lou on January 05, 2012 10:45 AM:

    "PBS couldnít do that even if it wanted to ó it would violate FCC regulations."

    Doesn't stop them from running many corporate sponsor ads now. PBS has already crossed the line. They allowed ADM to run their greenwashing ads for several years. During that stretch I didn't see any critical coverage of corn ethanol by the News Hour. This is the real danger of letting this slide any further.

  • Cybrguy on January 05, 2012 11:00 AM:

    Isn't Romney the idiot who said they he didn't support the payroll tax credit because it was a "band-aid approach" to helping the public?
    Talk about band-aid approaches...

  • FriscoSF on January 05, 2012 11:14 AM:

    Don't worry, Willard will FLIP FLOP on this issue, too

    Maybe we should cut military spending, instead

  • Let Us Count on January 05, 2012 11:29 AM:

    T2 hit it. Let us envision the New and Improved Conservative Sesame Street, as translated from their party message:

    We'd see Oscar getting Moocher graffiti on his can after being tossed out of the neighborhood for not keeping HOA standards.
    The Cookie Monster caught eating pro-life Girl Scout cookies is CAP's first "victory" and we'd get to watch his trial.
    Bert and Ernie would be bashed for being gay and denied the right to marry or adopt children or have ice cream with the other muppets.
    Grover will simply continue to be the poster child of the Texas Board of Education while Mr. Snuffleupagus now has carries board signs saying Your Ad Here.

    And The Street, as it would now be called due to the Hispanic and Black muppets, would be rife with corporate fast-food and toy ads, all ruled over by strict if maniacally giggly Henry Potteresque figure of Elmo who's the biggest money maker on the street, his manager The Count would extol Just How Important having a lot of money to count really is.

  • H.H. McCool on January 05, 2012 12:37 PM:

    somebody needs to tell the head of PBS to wake up. My local PBS station, WTCI, in Chattanooga, TN, has been running commercial ads for years, the same ads that run on commercial stations. When I complained to the station manager, he told me that those were "sponsor enhancements," not commercials. How incredibly cynical.

    Does your PBS station do this? Does the head of PBS know that this is going on, or is he steeped in cynicism just like everyone else in Washington?

  • Peter C on January 05, 2012 12:53 PM:

    Republicans are sophists; if a word does not mean what you want it to mean, you change the definition of the word. You don't want an open-ended commitment to care for the elderly, you change 'Medicare' to a coupon scheme. You don't want marriage to be a life-long commitment between two people, you redefine 'Marriage'. You hate adults making decisions about when they have children, you redefine 'life'. Now, if you hate educational TV, you redefine 'Public Television' to mean that Big Bird hawks sugary cereal.

    Well, DANGIT, I'm not giving REPUBLCIANS the power to decide what words mean! MAYBE, I'll let Government decide what they mean by the words they use, but THEY DON'T HAVE THE POWER TO TELL ME WHAT I MEAN WHEN I USE THEM!

    Conversely, if you believe in health care for the elderly and responsible parenting and committed relationships and media that ISN'T CONTROLLED BY THE FRACKING CORPORATIONS, then you'd better vote for LIBERALS!

    Destroying public television is all about giving more power to the 1%; that's why Romney want to do it.

  • John in TX on January 05, 2012 1:44 PM:

    Let Us Count on January 05, 2012 11:29 AM:

    That's hilarious, and true! However, I think we all know that on the New and Improved Conservative Sesame Street, there wouldn't be any black or Hispanic muppets. They'd all live on some occasionally mentioned -- but never shown -- Street across town somewhere, and Sesame Street itself would be entirely, blandly gentrified, with a Starbucks, perfectly manicured grass and a private "security" force.