Is Big Bird on the chopping block?
President Trump’s proposed 2018 budget, released late last week, envisions zeroing out millions in federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the private non-profit that channels funding to programming and operations for public TV and radio nationwide.
Broadcast giants National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), as well as about 1,500 local affiliates, rely on the funding — the budget move would slice about $485 million from their collective bottom line, according to Politico.
White House budget director Mick Mulvaney last week said the move comes down to practicality: “When you start looking at places that we reduce spending, one of the questions we asked was, ‘Can we really continue to ask a coal miner in West Virginia or a single mom in Detroit to pay for these programs?’ The answer was ‘No.’ We can ask them to pay for defense, and we will, but we can’t ask them to continue to pay for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.”
The move inspired a few comedic riffs: Jimmy Kimmel envisioned Trump firing Big Bird Apprentice-style. A satiric headline in The Onion read, “Gaunt, Hollow-Eyed Big Bird Enters Sixth Day Of Hunger Strike Against Proposed Trump Budget.”
But could the move really kill the beloved yellow bird and his Sesame Street pals?
Not really — though it could keep them from spending time in your living room.
PBS, which broadcasts Sesame Street for free, would likely suffer from the cuts. But Big Bird and his friends could likely continue producing new episodes, since they now wear a kind of bulletproof vest emblazoned with another three-letter acronym: HBO.
In 2015, Sesame Street’s parent non-profit, Sesame Workshop, signed a five-year funding agreement with the cable entertainment giant that gives HBO exclusive rights to new episodes. PBS gets the episodes nine months later, for free.
But if individual PBS stations can’t afford to keep the lights on, the cuts could keep Big Bird & Friends from populating your children’s daytime TV schedules, advocates say.
“A number of those stations would go off the air,” Paula Kerger, PBS’s president, told The Washington Post. “It’s an existential question for many of them.” For some stations, she said, losing federal funding could mean the loss of as much as half of their budget.
Eliminating CPB, said Patricia Harrison, the non-profit’s president, “would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history, and promoting civil discussions — all for Americans in both rural and urban communities.”
Michael Davis, author of Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street, took a more philosophical stance on the CPB: “It’s the only corporation Republicans don’t like,” he said.
Founded in 1969 with a $7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education and the Ford and Carnegie foundations, Sesame Workshop (it was originally called the Children’s Television Workshop) is a non-profit 501(c)3. But unlike most non-profits, it has long enjoyed a lucrative licensing arrangement via its easily recognizable characters, as well as sales from videotapes and DVDs.
Both markets have dried up in recent years, pinching Sesame’s ability to continue producing the show. DVD revenues have dropped 70% as video streaming services, such as Netflix, took hold. Merchandising revenue has been cut in half as other children’s programs introduced countless new characters.
Sesame Workshop President Jeffrey Dunn last October told NPR that prior to the HBO deal, the enterprise was losing “large amounts of money” on production costs. “If we didn’t change — don’t change — we don’t exist 10 years from now. Maybe five years from now,” he said.
Under the new arrangement, HBO underwrites the show’s $40 million production costs. PBS essentially broadcasts reruns, airing episodes nine months after they’ve first appeared on the premium cable channel.
Davis said the show’s young audience doesn’t much care about the timing.
“When you’re drinking from a sippy cup, you don’t know that the episode you’re watching was produced in 2015, 2014 or 2016,” he said. “When you’re that young, every episode is new to you and fresh to you.”
The push to defund entities like PBS and CPB goes back “to the very beginning,” Davis said, when lawmakers in Mississippi and Alabama, objecting to the sight of African-American and white children playing together onscreen, tried to take Sesame Street off the air. Viewers protested and the effort died.
He said ongoing congressional efforts to defund public broadcasting likely stem from one key show: Frontline, the investigative documentary series that “makes them crazy.”
All the same, Davis said, the return on the original $7 million Sesame Street investment “almost cannot be quantified. So many hundreds of millions of children, not only on this continent but beyond, have been served by that great experiment. So many children have been taught the basics of shapes and sounds and letters — ‘under, around, over and through.’”
In the past decade, he said, Sesame Street went beyond basic skills, creating content for children whose parents came home from Iraq without a limb, for instance — or didn’t come home at all. Just this week, the show is debuting a Muppet character with autism.
Co-productions worldwide have brought comfort and reassurance to children in “every hotspot that you can think of,” Davis said. “Kosovo, back in the day in Northern Ireland, in developing countries.” In South Africa, the show taught “an entire generation” about AIDS.
“If you think about the show as an ambassador, it’s probably one of the most successful ambassadors we’ve ever sent across our shores.”
He predicted that viewers who can’t afford HBO will protest once they realize that their local PBS station — and thus the sight of Big Bird — could be at risk. “It’s not even a rounding error in the federal budget and they want it to be continued. So their voices will be heard.”
Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo
Could Trump’s 2018 budget kill Sesame Street’s beloved Big Bird? – USA TODAY