Big Bird’s boss weighs in

Last week, Mitt Romney relied on a standard conservative talking point to make a point about the budget: he’s eyeing changes to public television.

“I like PBS,” the Republican said. “We subsidize PBS. Look, I’m going to stop that. I’m going to say, ‘PBS is going to have to have advertisements.’ We’re not going to kill Big Bird, but Big Bird’s going to have advertisements, all right?”

Well, no, perhaps it’s not all right. This week, PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger weighed in.

Kerger says PBS understands that these are hard economic times and tough decisions have to be made. But PBS, she says, has always had bipartisan support in large part because it is an “effective public/private partnership.” “I think that what we hope to do is to make it clear that we have broad support from the American public.”

It’s also, she says, cost-effective support. PBS only gets, in aggregate, 15 percent of its budget from the federal government — but it’s a percentage that is vital to smaller, poorer, mostly rural stations. “That money cannot be made up. We try to leverage it very carefully.”

As for Romney’s suggestion that the service run ads, Kerger points out that PBS couldn’t do that even if it wanted to — it would violate FCC regulations. But even more, she says, changing PBS to an ad-supported network would inevitably change what it airs because the network would be forced to show programs that attract advertiser-friendly crowds.

Perhaps Romney didn’t think this one through. More likely, he just doesn’t care, and he knows the far-right has some odd hang-up about public television.

But what I found even more interesting than his Big Bird comments was the larger context.

Romney wasn’t asked about public television; his comments came during a town-hall event in Iowa when he was talking about balancing the federal budget. In other words, when addressing how he’d reduce the deficit, the very first substantive idea Romney raised had nothing to do with taxes, entitlements, or the Pentagon budget, but rather, “Big Bird is going to have advertisements.”

Unless Romney envisions PBS charging hundreds of billions of dollars for commercials, this is the kind of comment that reinforces concerns over his willingness to be serious about public policy.