by Gary Levin, USA TODAY
A day after the Twitterverse exploded in reaction to Mitt Romney's vow to fire Big Bird by cutting federal funding to PBS, Sesame Street declined to enter the political fray, turning down requests from TV talk shows for an appearance by the giant yellow avian.
But others voiced support on social media and elsewhere, reigniting a debate about taxpayer funding of public broadcasting.
One Twitter user quickly created a @FiredBigBird account and sent a manipulated photo of our feathered friend on a Depression-era bread line (caption: "This is now my life"), quickly amassing more than 10,000 followers before the account was suspended.
By midday Thursday, a Facebook posting directing visitors to a ValuePBS.org Web site was seen by 225,000 users and generated 500 comments. And reaction reached down to the show's pint-sized viewers: 8-year-old Cecelia Crawford of Alabama sent a letter to the Romney campaign, obtained by the Huffington Post, that urged it to protect "my favorite show on earth."
"People are certainly talking about it," says PBS spokeswoman Anne Bentley. "Moms, parents, teachers and educators have been vocal in their support today."
It's not the first time Republican candidates and congressmen have targeted federal appropriations, totaling $445 million this year, to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; it's a frequent target for budget-minded lawmakers.
But Romney's offhand remarks in a discussion about the deficit radiated as he promised that, if elected, he'd cut funding. "I like PBS ... I love Big Bird," he said, "but I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for."
Technically, the funding does not go directly to PBS or NPR; instead, it's sent to NPR outlets and PBS' 179 local stations around the country to help pay member fees in exchange for the right to air their programming.
"What it would really affect is our stations' ability to stay on the air," Bentley says. Such grants represent an average of 15% of stations' operating budgets, and up to 50% for some in rural areas. "They're really in jeopardy of going dark if they don't receive funding."
But PBS provides the home for Sesame Street, a much-praised preschool program that began airing in 1969 and is among its top-rated kids shows. It's produced and funded by Sesame Workshop, a non-profit organization, and the perception that taxpayer dollars are going to a group that sells untold numbers of Tickle Me Elmo dolls is "misleading," says executive VP Sherrie Westin. The show receives no direct federal funding.
"We raise the vast majority of our funding from licensing revenues, corporate sponsorships and philanthropic donations," Westin says. Even so, "PBS is our longtime distribution partner, and without them we couldn't reach all children in the country with educational, commercial-free programming."
Big Bird was not made available for comment. But in a Twitter message Thursday, BB claimed to be unaware of the fuss: "My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?"