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Why Big Bird Matters: The Politicization of Public Broadcasting

“I fundamentally believe that the public will not stand for severe cuts to public broadcasting.”

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Ken Burns was thrilled to learn that he had a fan in the White House. The prolific filmmaker, who redefined American documentaries by chronicling baseball, jazz and Mark Twain, had just told the president of his latest project: a nine-part documentary on the Civil War, that would go on to become the most watched program ever to air on PBS.

"His eyes lit up," Burns remembered. "I said I received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation of Public Broadcasting, which distributes this funding. Those funds had in turn brought in corporate and foundation monies."

The president put both hands on Burns' shoulder and said, "That's it. We need public-private partnerships. Good work. I can't wait to see the finished film."

Later, Burns said he received a personal note on White House stationery -- about how much the series had meant to the president.

But the note hadn't come from President Barack Obama, or any Democrat for that matter. In fact, the White House discussion took place nearly a quarter century ago between Burns and President Ronald Reagan.

Yet Mitt Romney, who continuously invokes Reagan's memory, couldn't distance himself further from Reagan's words when, during the Oct. 3 debate, the current GOP standard-bearer went out of his way to tell a national television audience of 67 million Americans that he was anxious to pull the plug on federal support for the Public Broadcasting Service.

"I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS," promised Romney, who quickly added, "I like PBS. I like Big Bird."

But Romney has continually put Big Bird in his cross-hairs through much of the political season.

Jan. 12: "I'm afraid Big Bird is going to have to get used to Kellogg's Corn Flakes."

Feb. 25: "We borrow money so that when you were little you watched Big Bird and Bert and Ernie."

March 15: "I like my grandkids being able to see Bert and Ernie and Big Bird, but I'm not willing to borrow money from China so that PBS doesn't have to run advertising."

But it was Romney's Oct. 3 comment that shook more than Big Bird's nest, sending broadcast executives back on their heels in the offices of PBS, CPB and National Public Radio, another of CPB's funding partners.

"I happened to be in the national offices of NPR the day after that debate," said John Hess, general manager of Boise State Public Radio. "I was in the office of the vice president of NPR station services."

Hess recalled that there was an "uneasy vibe" at NPR -- one of the nation's largest and most honored news organizations -- when it became part of the day's top news story.

"I think public media would love not to become the story. Believe me, that's not something we're trying to do," said Hess. "I honestly can't remember a presidential nominee taking on public broadcasting."

Across town, at the Boise headquarters of Idaho Public Television, General Manager Peter Morrill agreed that Romney's debate comment which coincidentally was aired on public broadcasting stations was "very surprising."

"But beyond my initial surprise, the debate reaffirmed to me about the business we're in. Public broadcasting isn't partisan," said Morrill. "Big Bird is a puppet, not a partisan issue."

And once all of the subsequent Big Bird jokes, which pre-occupied late night comedy programs, had come and gone, Morrill said a critical issue remained.

"I fundamentally believe that the public will not stand for severe cuts to public broadcasting," he said.

Idaho PTV receives approximately $1.1 million, in the form of a community service grant, from CPB, representing about 15 percent of its annual operating revenue. $1.3 million comes from the State of Idaho and the lion's share of Idaho PTV's revenue, nearly $4 million, comes from individuals, companies and foundations.

"I just don't believe that without that CPB investment our service would be sustained," said Morrill.

Idaho PTV's GM said state and federal funding helps secure the state public television network's infrastructure. He pointed to a recent analysis indicating that while Idaho PTV maintains 48 transmitters or translator towers throughout Idaho, it receives a dramatically lower amount of government funding yet maintains more channels (seven) of programming, when compared to its peers.

Meanwhile, Idaho PTV remains one of the most popular public television entities in the country.

"We learned in our recent Nielsen ratings that we're the second most watched PBS station, per capita, in the country," said Morrill, referring to Idaho PTV's ratings champs Downton Abbey, Antiques Roadshow and, of course, Sesame Street. "We seem to be appreciated," he said.

There's also abundant audience appreciation at Boise State Public Radio, averaging approximately 100,000 listeners weekly.

"Our station ranks among the highest stations in two key demographics; adults 18-34 years old and 34-54 years old," said Hess. "We're in the top two or three in those categories."

Equally important, Hess said, was Boise State Public Radio listener loyalty.

"Radio is notorious for people who flip around the dial," said Hess. "But when you talk to our listeners, you'll hear that we're the only station they tune to."

Not unlike Idaho PTV, Boise State Public Radio's signal reaches deep into the Gem State.

"Our coverage area is about the square mileage of Massachusetts," said Hess, pointing to an audience that stretches beyond McCall and Salmon to the north, the Oregon border to the west, American Falls to the east and full coverage in the Magic and Wood River valleys.

Hess, who is the president of the Western States Public Radio Group, said his colleagues are a bit nervous.

"They don't know what the future holds. Everything appears to be in a holding pattern until after the election," he said. "Elections matter."

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