Opinion: Columnists

Too Big Bird to fail

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Photo - Big Bird and “Sesame Street” would go on even without the licensing revenue it receives from PBS. (AP file photo)
Big Bird and “Sesame Street” would go on even without the licensing revenue it receives from PBS. (AP file photo)
Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Campaign 2012,Politics Digest

If you got all your news from the Obama campaign, you'd think Mitt Romney was on the verge of having Bain Capital buy Sesame Street, bulldoze it and turn it into a shopping mall. The Obama campaign even ran an ad Tuesday slamming Romney for his call to end federal PBS funding -- at least until Big Bird and his friends said don't drag us into this.

Well, you can all relax. Big Bird will do just fine even if federal funding for public broadcasting is cut off. In fact, if every PBS station is shut down tomorrow, that wonder-filled yellow fowl will quickly pop up elsewhere on TV.

Don't take it from me. Here's what Sherrie Westin, executive vice president of Sesame Workshop, told CNN last week: "The Sesame Workshop receives very little funding from PBS. So we are able to raise our funding through philanthropic [means and] through our licensed product."

She added: "So quite frankly, you can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting. But when they always try to [trot] out Big Bird, and say we're going to kill Big Bird -- that is actually misleading, because Sesame Street will be here ... Big Bird lives on."

This raises the question of why Big Bird and his Muppet friends need taxpayer dollars in the first place -- and why this is a controversy at all if they get so little to begin with.

What most people don't understand about Sesame Street is that PBS does not actually produce it. Sesame Workshop is a separate nonprofit entity that owns, produces and licenses the show to PBS. The show's licensing revenue from PBS is nominal -- $1.5 million annually on net, according to Sesame Workshop spokeswoman Ellen Lewis. That's for 26 one-hour episodes, at an annual production cost of $14 million.

Sesame Street is big business by the way. In 2011, it got $45 million in donations for its programming, $47 million from licensing Sesame Street products, and another $42 million in distribution fees and royalties. Sesame's 2011 total revenue was $134 million. About $19 million of that comes from federal sources, only $1.5 million of which is PBS.

Sesame Workshop's total assets are valued at $289 million -- more than Mitt Romney's reported net worth of $250 million. In short, the PBS money is little more than birdseed and cookie crumbs.

So, if it isn't owned by PBS and doesn't need its money, why doesn't Sesame Street just run on a cable channel like the Discovery Network? In fact, it already does. In 2004, Sesame Workshop partnered with Comcast and others to create Sprout, a 24-hour commercial kids channel that you can probably find in the three-digit section of your cable channels.

PBS wants to keep Sesame Street because it is so popular that it helps justify the existence of the entire network. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which funds PBS, gets $450 million annually from the government. PBS's own statement reacting to Romney invoked Big Bird without mentioning that it doesn't own him, and in fact spends only a pittance on Sesame Street. In fact, PBS and Sesame Street are also rivals, competing for the same fundraising dollars -- so there's your hint about why Sesame's top brass would contradict PBS this way in public.

Sesame Workshop's Lewis argues that Sesame needs PBS for its audience. "Only 53 percent of low-income children have access to satellite or cable programming [while] public broadcasting reaches nearly every household in America without commercial advertising," she told me.

But the fact that more than half of low-income kids now have cable or satellite TV signals that the rationale for keeping the program on PBS grows steadily weaker every year.

So rest easy, parents. Whoever wins the election, and whether or not they continue federal funding for PBS, we can expect sunny days on Sesame Street as long as there are children to watch it -- wherever it is on the dial.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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