'Sesame Street' Tries To Keep Big Bird Out Of Politics

When Mitt Romney said he would cut PBS funding in the first presidential debate — and singled out Big Bird, whom he said he liked a lot — he perhaps inadvertently introduced the befeathered yellow children's icon smack into the center of political debate. President Obama approved a cable-only commercial dinging Romney for going after Sesame Street rather than Wall Street, but Romney appears to think he has a winning hand — castigating the president for focusing on a profitable educational puppet empire rather than big issues, like terrorism in the Arab world.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Big Bird has unexpectedly become a central figure in the race for the White House. President Obama today released an ad making fun of his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, for something he said during last week's debate. Romney vowed to cut federal support for public broadcasting, which includes Big Bird's home on "Sesame Street." As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, both camps think they're on the winning side of the issue.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: While governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney supported tax credits that helped the local producers of public TV shows gain millions of dollars. At last week's presidential debate, however, here's the Republican challenger telling PBS' Jim Lehrer that the stations that take "NewsHour" wouldn't be getting anymore federal dollars under a Romney administration.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

MITT ROMNEY: I'm sorry, Jim. I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I'm going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. Actually, I like you too. But I'm not going to - I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.

FOLKENFLIK: There were said to be 17,000 tweets per minute about Big Bird and PBS during the debate, and Big Bird himself showed up on "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

MATT VOGEL: (as Big Bird) It's so weird to think that just a few days ago, I could just blend in like every other perfectly normal 8-foot-tall talking bird.

SETH MYERS: (as himself) Yeah. That is right.

FOLKENFLIK: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives approximately 445 million federal dollars a year. Nearly three-quarters of that is set aside for public television stations and programming. About a quarter is set aside for public radio. Mr. Obama was silent on the matter during the debate but more recently found in it a rallying cry.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When he was asked what he'd actually do to cut the deficit and reduce spending, he said he'd eliminate funding for public television.

FOLKENFLIK: Here was the president campaigning in Virginia.

OBAMA: I mean, thank goodness, somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It's about time.

FOLKENFLIK: And then his campaign put out a new commercial bought on national cable channels to get the press' attention.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Bernie Madoff. Ken Lay. Dennis Kozlowski. Criminals. Gluttons of greed. And the evil genius who towered over them? One man has the guts to speak his name...

ROMNEY: Big Bird. Big Bird. Big Bird.

FOLKENFLIK: It's postmodern, a negative ad that is itself a spoof of negative ads.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV COMMERCIAL)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Big. Yellow. A menace to our economy. Mitt Romney knows it's not Wall Street you have to worry about. It's "Sesame Street."

FOLKENFLIK: Romney spokesman Kevin Madden fired back with an identical critique.

KEVIN MADDEN: ...household incomes going down. You've got a federal deficit - federal debt that's now over $16 trillion. And I just find it troubling that the president's message, the president's focus 28 days from Election Day is Big Bird.

FOLKENFLIK: President Reagan moved to kill funding for PBS in the early 1980s, and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich did so again in the mid-1990s. Former Pennsylvania Congressman Robert Walker was a top Gingrich lieutenant at the time. He says some lawmakers were swamped with calls, but all of them fielded complaints.

ROBERT WALKER: The people who were in contact with me tended to be pretty influential people in the district, and certainly, that had an impact. I think many other members found the same thing.

FOLKENFLIK: Plans to eliminate funding were scaled back, but Walker says the time may now be ripe. "Sesame Street" receives about $5.5 million annually from PBS. Its annual revenues of more than $130 million a year rely much more on foundation grants and merchandise sales involving Elmo and other favorites. The public television stations themselves would be much more vulnerable. As for Big Bird, he wants out. "Sesame Street" says it has asked for images of its characters to be removed from materials from both camps. It says the great yellow tufted one wants no part of partisan politics. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York.

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