Romney’s Bay State Love Affair with PBS

It’s old news by now that Mitt Romney wants to fire Big Bird (and Rick Santorum wants to eat him, apparently) by cutting federal subsidies to PBS, where Sesame Street is broadcast. Romney’s remark should be tempered, no surprise, with some context on his own history with public broadcasting subsidies. Today’s Boston Globe brings news that in 2005 Romney signed a bill ushering in tax breaks for in-state film producers, which has indirectly provided a windfall for the state’s public broadcasters.

Boston public television giant WGBH received $4.2 million from the state’s film tax credit program last year alone for programs like “American Experience,” “Antiques Roadshow,” and “Nova.” And Watertown animation studio Soup2Nuts received about $300,000 in subsidies last year, mostly for the PBS series WordGirl.

Romney’s Big Bird assault, as Charlie Pierce has surmised, might end up being the only aspect of the debate we all remember a few weeks from now. It also might also make for Priorities USA Action fodder. The PBS subsidy, which makes up .012% of the federal budget, remains broadly popular, despite regular Republican efforts to eliminate it: According to a 2011 poll, 69% of voters oppose proposals to cut its funds. (Though not a perfect comparison, it’s worth noting that the average Brit pays $60 yearly for BBC television service; the average American pays $1.35* for PBS.) Though PBS and NPR bashing is standard GOP red meat (their opposition derives not so much from the actual funding, but their perception that public broadcasting bears a liberal bias) Romney’s latest flip-flop is actually more in line with the newfound moderation he test-drove in Denver.

Rather than double down of his running mate’s “marvelous” austerity budget, or tout the savings that might arise out of turning Medicare into a semi-voucherized program, as he proposes to do, Romney has tried to target the ostensibly silly stuff on which we’re spending taxpayer dollars. In other words, he’s highlighting the government’s frivolity, not its profligacy. And in doing so, he may avoid scaring off the moderate independents he’s courting. Ironically, the approach bears similarity to Obama’s own public avowals to cut spending, which often single out redundant or ridiculous-sounding federal programs that barely make a dent in the budget.

*Corrected from household to individual.

Simon van Zuylen-Wood

Simon van Zuylen-Wood is a writer for Philadelphia Magazine.