One of Mitt Romney's biggest laugh lines in last night's debate was a promise to cut funding for PBS, essentially vowing to fire debate moderator Jim Lehrer of the PBS Newshour as well as America's favorite freakishly tall, ambiguously speciesed bird:
I’m sorry, Jim. I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you too. But I’m not going to -- I’m not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it
PBS and NPR are popular rhetorical targets for conservatives, both for their perceived liberal bias and the fact that Americans think they pay a lot more for them than they actually do. According to a 2011 poll, 40 percent of Americans think the Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives 1-5 percent of the federal budget. 30 percent believe it receives 5 percent or more. The number, at the time, was closer to .00014 percent.
It's worth putting this in international context as well. A 2011 report by Rodney Benson and Matthew Powers of NYU’s Department of Media, Culture and Communication, compared U.S. funding for public broadcasting to 14 other developed countries. This chart shows the results:
Keep in mind that the number for the United States here includes state and local funding. The federal appropriation for the CPB -- which, it bears repeating, does not pay for the majority of local or national public broadcasting -- for fiscal year 2013 is $445 million, less than every country on the list except for Ireland. It's also less than the more than $2 billion the BBC recently cut from its budget -- a reduction considered a severe blow to programming.
The report also found that U.S. per capita spending on public broadcasting is around $4, compared to $30 to $134 for the other countries on the list. And if you think that $4 is still too much for a service few Americans take advantage of, consider that significantly more Americans tune in to NP's Morning Edition and All Things Considered than the nightly newscasts on NBC, CBS, and ABC.
This is not to say that the U.S. should emulate these other countries. American readers of Haruki Murakami's novel 1Q84 were probably somewhat confused by a character who works as an NHK subscription fee collector, going door to door to collect payments for Japan's completely state-funded broadcaster. Annoying as they are, pledge drives are quite a bit less intrusive.
And beloved as the singing baby crocodile Schnappi may be by children throughout Europe, even the most devoted PBS viewers are probably fine with the U.S. not spending $10 billion on public broadcasting like Germany -- Europe's top spender -- does.
But given how the world's largest economy stacks up to its peers when it comes to public broadcasting spending, maybe it's time to give Big Bird a break.