The Obama campaign apparently is being run by a humor-deficient would-be Jon Stewart: On Tuesday, it launched an ill-advised attempt at snark in an advertisement featuring Big Bird. How bad was the ad? Even the yellow fellow himself was embarrassed, and Sesame Workshop, the multimillion-dollar enterprise with the $1 million–a–year president behind Sesame Street, asked that the ad be taken down. Even President Obama’s amen corner in the media was aghast: ABC News’ Terry Moran pronounced it the work of a campaign “in panic mode.” Somebody should remind Barack Obama that he is, for the moment, president of the United States of America, and not auditioning for whichever MSNBC time slot Chris Hayes turned down.
Mitt Romney has promised to end subsidies for public broadcasting, which is an excellent idea for many reasons, beginning with a $16 trillion debt. Those who point out that eliminating mere small-fry outlays like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting won’t balance the budget are undeniably correct — but it is also undeniably correct that we will not balance the budget without eliminating a lot of small-fry outlays like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. We have to do the big-ticket items and the little ones as well, lest we spare the taxpayer the guillotine only to abandon him to a death by a thousand forgone cuts. While Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are rolling out big ideas on taxes, entitlements, and deficits, Barack Obama is clinging to his toys like a frightened child, which very well may be what he is feeling like after his recent trip to the woodshed.
Controlling the deficit will entail some difficult decisions. Getting Big Bird off of welfare is not one of them. Caroll Spinney, the actor who has played Big Bird since the dawn of time, earns a comfortable 1-percenter income and nests in a gated estate in tony Woodstock, Conn. Rich-old-hippie welfare is an idea whose time has gone. Public-broadcasting executives earn incomes well into the six figures and sometimes into the seven figures. Sesame Workshop takes in hundreds of millions of dollars from Tickle Me Elmo and other merchandise. Big Bird is beak-deep in birdseed and does not require a half-billion dollars a year from taxpayers. Antiques Roadshow, Frontline, and many other public-broadcasting programs similarly do not require government support. We have excellent reason to believe that people will open their pockets to pay for Downton Abbey: the fact that they already open their pockets to pay for Downton Abbey through on-demand television services. And if Clinton: American Experience or Tony Bennett: Duets II somehow fails to connect with an audience, the sun will rise in the morn nonetheless.
Public broadcasting is the deathless government program par excellence. It may have made some sense a few generations ago, when there were in effect three broadcast television stations, limited radio offerings, and enormous regulatory and economic barriers standing in the way of new market entrants. But that no longer is the case: Anybody with a few thousand dollars and an Internet connection can launch a television series or a radio program today and reach an audience of millions. We have more television stations than we can watch, more radio stations than we can listen to, and instantaneous connections to most of the world’s media. In fact, we could multiply public broadcasting expenditures a hundredfold and do practically nothing to improve on the already vast richness of our media environment. Firing Line is a beloved memory, but in 2012 such programming would not require a public-broadcasting infrastructure to thrive. If PBS doesn’t do it, 10 million others will.
And while PBS and NPR give very little offense beyond their bland, conventional liberalism, the United States is not the sort of country that should have government-run media — or even media that is only 6 percent government run. Public broadcasting, like so much associated with the progressive heyday, is fundamentally un-republican.
We welcome this debate. The Democrats will, as usual, cry that this is about “the children,” but l’affair Big Bird shows us precisely who the children really are.