The Bird stays in the picture

    It was the pink slip heard ’round the world.

    “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS,” said Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney when asked how he would help reduce government spending during the first Presidential debate. “I love PBS, I love Big Bird, I actually like you too,” he told moderator and PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer. “But I’m not gonna keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

    The backlash was immediate on Twitter, with over a quarter of a million tweets voicing support for Sesame Street’s most famous cast member and the creation of the account @FiredBigBird. Big Bird and his presenter PBS are a staple of American television, but thanks to social media and the coverage of cable news channels, the level of support seen for them at this time is unrivaled.

    The following is a work of opinion submitted by the author.

    It was the pink slip heard ’round the world.

    “I’m sorry, Jim. I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS,” said Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney when asked how he would help reduce government spending during the first Presidential debate. “I love PBS, I love Big Bird, I actually like you too,” he told moderator and PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer. “But I’m not gonna keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for.”

    The backlash was immediate on Twitter, with over a quarter of a million tweets voicing support for Sesame Street’s most famous cast member and the creation of the account @FiredBigBird. Big Bird and his presenter PBS are a staple of American television, but thanks to social media and the coverage of cable news channels, the level of support seen for them at this time is unrivaled.

    Romney is to be admired for his willingness to stop the financial bleeding, but eliminating funding for public television to stabilize government spending is like the Ritz-Carlton getting rid of its tiny bottles of shampoo to reduce the cost of its hotel rooms. Of the $3.4 trillion federal budget in 2010, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds PBS, was appropriated a little over $500 million, or .014 percent. Romney remained firm on his commitment to maintain the $931 billion defense budget.

    Bigger than a single street

    What Romney fails to consider is Sesame Street’s over 40 years of influence on education and international relations. For a man who loves teachers and prides himself on elevating Massachusetts’ education system ranking to number one in the United States, he neglects to give Big Bird’s creators credit for transforming television from a source of entertainment to a building block of knowledge for young children.

    When Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett created Sesame Street in 1969, their intention was to take a new medium that captivated audiences and use it to give children of all economic backgrounds the chance to develop a firm base for learning. With the help of Jim Henson, Cooney and Morrisett assembled a children’s television program that allowed young viewers to unknowingly absorb important concepts with the help of lovable characters and short, easy-to-follow segments.

    In the years since the show’s inception, American children have learned to count numbers, recite the alphabet, and even learn phrases in Spanish, a move that signaled the acceptance of the growing number of Latin American children moving to or being born in the United States.

    The formula proved so effective that beginning in 1972, the Sesame Workshop (then called the Children’s Television Workshop) began working with nations around the world to produce versions of Sesame Street tailored to the educational needs of their countries, starting with Villa Sésamo in Brazil.

    These international versions of the show have also tackled important social aspects of their nations. In 2002, South Africa’s Takalani Sesame introduced a new character, an orphan named Kami, who made headlines as the first HIV-positive character in the history of the Sesame Street canon. Kami’s addition to the show came at the urging of the government of South Africa, where at that time one in nine people was living with the virus. By producing a character that millions of children could identify with, Takalani Sesame was able to encourage the acceptance of people living with HIV and shatter myths about the virus and its transmission.

    Today, there are 30 locally produced versions of Sesame Street around the world that are enjoyed by more than 150 countries. In a sense, Sesame Street and its cast, from Big Bird to Oscar the Grouch, are some of the United State’s greatest ambassadors to children and families around the globe.

    Do voters want to lose PBS?

    Mitt Romney’s decision to axe subsidies to PBS highlights a major disconnect between himself and the voters he hopes to attract. Past attempts to quash funding for public television have been met with considerable resistance from supporters, most notably in 2011. That year, when House Republicans announced their plan to defund public television and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, petitions to halt the plan emerged at MoveOn, CREDO Action, and the Free Press Action Fund. Collectively the petitions secured over 1 million signatures and eventually an assurance from the Republican planners that an amendment would be submitted to continue funding for CPB.

    Now, more than ever, as new democracies look to us as an example, America needs its public television. We need the funding of CPB to continue so that new generations can absorb important educational and social concepts and adults can watch programs that offers facts that are not politically endorsed.

    At the end of the day, Big Bird must stay. Chances are good that the public will rise up yet again in support of Sesame Street and public television as a whole. What makes Mitt Romney’s insistence that he would not borrow money from China to fund Big Bird and PBS so ironic is the character’s history with the country.

    After all, how many of us could forget the 1983 film Big Bird in China?

    CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting was appropriated .00014 percent of the federal budget. The actual figure is .014 percent. We regret the fuzzy math.

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