11:04 am Oct. 4, 20122
Mitt Romney's line about Big Bird last night was one of those substance-free moments of what passes for humor in a presidential debate. But it was an odd moment, too. Calculated to deliver a sticky bit for Romney, it also sprouted a meme that portrayed Romney as a soulless bastard.
In case you're not among the 25 percent of Americans who are said to have watched the debate last night, here's what I'm talking about: During a discussion of public funding for social programs (health care), Romney brought up public broadcasting.
"I’m sorry, Jim," he said to moderator Jim Lehrer (host of PBS' "NewsHour"). "I’m going to the stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it."
(It was, perhaps, a cruder way to put it than he did in December of last year.)
This morning, though, Sherrie Westin, chief marketing officer of Sesame Workshop, went on Soledad O'Brien's morning show to explain why Big Bird didn't need pity from deficit hawks.
“Sesame Workshop receives very, very little funding from PBS," she told O'Brien. "So, we are able to raise our funding through philanthropic, through our licensed product, which goes back into the educational programming, through corporate underwriting and sponsorship. So quite frankly, you can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting. But when they always try to tout out Big Bird, and say we’re going to kill Big Bird – that is actually misleading, because Sesame Street will be here.”
Just how much public funding is "very, very little"? A recent financial statement from Sesame Workshop and Subsidiaries, cited by Slate's Forrest Wickman in January, reported $45 million in merchandising revenue in 2010, which only covers about 34 percent of its expenses:
[Operating] expenses for the Sesame Workshop totaled about $133 million, including $37 million for production and development of TV shows at home and abroad; $41 million for production and distribution of non-TV content including apps, home video, and live entertainment; and a hair under $7 million for “Muppet acquisition.” (The remainder goes towards education, outreach, fundraising expenses, and assorted smaller costs.)
So besides merchandising and the like, where does the rest of the money come from? Distribution fees, royalties, private donors, and corporate sponsors, sure. But also government grants applied for directly; while Romney slashing the PBS budget might not directly affect Big Bird, these other grant programs are likely also in his line of fire.
And what exactly did "Sesame Street" get from PBS in 2010? $4 million. (Enough to produce four episodes of the show, but a hair over 3 percent of the company's operating budget.) So, yes, very, very little.
Here's Westin talking to O'Brien, followed by a slightly embarrassed discussion of the whole Big Bird moment among a bunch of sleep-deprived-seeming pundits: