Editorial: Don’t mess with Sesame Street

Editorials Opinions

What did Big Bird ever do to you, Mitt Romney?

North America has been full of fervour ever since Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s statement that he would cut funding to the United States Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), which has been around since 1970. You might remember PBS as the network that brought you such beloved shows as Sesame Street, The Magic School Bus and Bill Nye the Science Guy. 

Romney said he liked PBS, and Big Bird too, despite the GOP’s constant whining about the broadcaster’s supposedly “leftist” bent. But he suggested that the government would be better off cutting its $444 million subsidy to PBS and NPR (National Public Radio) and letting those companies stand on their own. Why should PBS be able to feed from the public trough and have an unfair advantage over other supposedly educational stations, including the privately owned Discovery Channel and History Channel? After all, if the content is good enough, it should be able to survive as a private organization.

But let’s take a look at some examples of other educational TV stations in America. The American specialty channel TLC — once known as The Learning Channel — was originally a public, educational TV station, partially backed by NASA, that focused on a variety of educational content. But privatization, and the resulting drive to boost ratings, led to a slow decline into reality show hell with  Here Comes Honey Boo Boo currently at the helm.

Take a look through other, similar American cable channels: A&E, the History Channel, the Discovery Channel. Sensationalistic reality shows dominate their lineups. How can these broadcasters justify any value in airing these shows other than ratings?

The real rub is in the numbers. Research by PBS shows that kids who watch it in preschool end up doing more reading for fun in high school and get better grades in English, math and science. PBS offers hundreds of hours of content to more than 90 million people and even shoulders much of the cost; PBS member stations raise six dollars for every dollar invested in them.

For this amazing contribution to kids, government funding for PBS only represents about 0.014 per cent of the federal budget according to Sesame Workshop CMO and former assistant to President G.W. Bush, Sherrie Westin. American funding for public broadcasting is lower than 13 other developed countries, including the UK, Canada, France, Germany and even New Zealand and Sweden. Renowned astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson summed up the ridiculousness in a Tweet last week, comparing cutting PBS funding to deleting text files to save space on your 500 GB hard drive.

Just think what different childhoods many of us would have had if PBS had been destroyed during our most impressionable years. There would have been no benevolent Levar Burton telling us not to take his word for it, and no Thomas the Tank Engine trundling over tiny trestles.  The consequences of cutting PBS funding today could be very damaging for the next generation — alliterative shows for the learning-to-be-literate (aka Homework Hotline) still grace PBS’s airwaves. Ninety-five percent of PBS stations across America air educational programming, and no child should be without these options.