Presidential debate 101: How much would US save by cutting off Big Bird?

Eliminating federal spending for the whole Corporation for Public Broadcasting, not just Big Bird and 'Sesame Street,' would save about $445 million a year. It is less than a speck in overall government spending, but that's not MItt Romney's point.

Matt Sayles/AP/File
In this August 2009 file photo, Big Bird arrives for the Daytime Emmy Awards in Los Angeles.

How much money would Washington save if it stopped subsidizing Big Bird?

This question arises, of course, because during the presidential debate that’s what Mitt Romney said he’d do if elected president. Asked what things he’d cut from the federal budget to help curb deficits, Mr. Romney mentioned the tax money that flows into the Public Broadcasting System. Then he got specific with moderator Jim Lehrer, a PBS star.

“I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too,” he said to Mr. Lehrer. “But I’m not going to ... borrow money from China to pay for it.”

OK, then. We’ll focus first on Big Bird, then on public TV and radio in general, and their relationship to deficit spending.

It should come as no surprise that cutting Big Bird off the US dole would save very little money, relatively speaking. In part that’s because Sesame Workshop, the company that produces “Sesame Street,” gets most of its money from sources other than Uncle Sam.

Let’s look at the numbers. According to the latest Internal Revenue Service Form 990 financial disclosure that Sesame Workshop has made public, its total revenue for 2009 was about $130 million. Of that, about $7.9 million came directly from government grants. So, a rounding error in a Pentagon checkbook.

Now, Big Bird gets program fees from stations, too. Sesame Workshop lists $27 million in content distribution revenue. Some of that comes from federal dollars funneled to local PBS entities, though the Form 990 doesn’t break that out.

Let’s figure that 8 percent of Sesame Workshop’s total budget comes from the government. That’s the figure the company has quoted in recent media reports. Given a $130 million overall budget, that comes in at about $10.4 million.

Given that this year’s federal deficit is $1.1 trillion, Big Bird is nothing but speck of dust on a mote on a dandelion that Horton the Elephant is trying to save from being boiled in oil.

Of course, “Sesame Street” is only one program. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting – funding partner of PBS and National Public Radio – got about $445 million in 2012 from the federal budget. Axing that, as Romney promises to do, would save a bit more.

Still, even $445 million wouldn’t pay for a computer system on one of the new ships Romney wants to add to the Navy. So why bother to go after it?

Because – you knew there was going to be a “because” – it’s not just about the absolute dollar value of the money. Conservatives have long decried federal subsidies to public broadcasting because they consider it blatant waste. Today’s broadcasting environment doesn’t lack for high-quality choices, as it did in the 1960s when the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was formed. Plus, much public TV and radio could survive just fine on its own, according to this view.

We’ll go back to Sesame Workshop to illustrate this point. According to a pie chart of the group’s financials, 35 percent of the group’s cash comes from corporate, foundation, and government support. As we’ve seen, the “government” part of that isn’t very big.

Another 33 percent comes from product licensing. That’s all the Elmo dolls and so forth that clutter kids’ bedrooms around America. A final 32 percent comes from distribution fees and royalties.

So, Big Bird would do just fine if he has to leave Washington’s nest. He’d get royalties from the movie “Elmopalooza,” plus grants from corporate and foundation partners.

Also, did you know the president of Sesame Workshop makes more than the president of the United States? We noticed that while combing through the 209 Form 990.

That year, Sesame Workshop president and CEO Gary Knell got $684,144 in reportable compensation from his job. The salary of the US president is fixed by law at $400,000, though the job does come with use of a house, Camp David, and Air Force One.

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