Fox News regular Stephen Moore, a Wall Street Journal editorial board member, today argued in favor of Mitt Romney's stated plan to end federal funding for PBS, by claiming that Sesame Street character Big Bird “has made more money than a lot of Wall Street firms.” In fact, records show that the show's production company loses money annually.
As a Slate article explained in January, "Sesame Street and its production company the Sesame Workshop do make a lot of money from product licensing, but not nearly enough to cover expenses." Indeed, according to the company's most recent available federal tax returns, Sesame Workshop lost $6 million in 2010: Total revenue that year was about $133 million, but expenses added up to more than $139 million.
Though that may seem like a significant figure for a children's program, Sesame Street is a “relative bargain” compared to other TV shows. As Slate noted, “The production budget for Sesame Street domestically is about $16 or $17 million per year, which produces about 26 episodes.” This works out to less than a million dollars per episode, whereas “a cable show like The Walking Dead can cost $3 million per episode,” reported Slate.
According to a recent audit of the program, the remaining revenue Sesame Workshop gains is spent on expenses such as “education, research and outreach,” “Sesame Street in schools,” and content distribution.
The New York Times reported that to make up for the losses, PBS hopes prime-time hits like Downton Abbey and Sherlock, which attract significantly more donations, will in turn help “finance other programs like 'Sesame Street.'”
But on Fox News' Your World, Moore cheered Romney's decision to end PBS' federal funding, saying that “Big Bird is big enterprise in fact.” He went on to argue that “people who listen to it, and watch it, and like the programming, they should pay for it,” adding:
MOORE: My feeling is look, if people like Warren Buffet and people like, you know, people like Ted Turner feel that this is such an important programing, why shouldn't they pay for it?
In fact, people who think the programming is important and want to keep it on-air already do pay for it.
Indeed, Sesame Street receives the majority of its funding from donors -- not from government subsidies. According to the most recent tax returns, Sesame Workshop received about $7 million in government contributions, which constituted only about 5 percent of its total revenue. Furthermore, only 15 percent of the total budget for PBS comes from federal funds, though that percentage is much higher for many rural public stations.
This means that cutting PBS' funding would ultimately affect the smaller rural stations the corporation was meant to help. As Forbes' Kelly Phillips Erb explained:
The original mission of PBS was to provide access to programming - particularly to those in rural areas and those who could not afford to pay for private television channels. I lived in one of those households which relied on PBS. I grew up in rural North Carolina and our TV service was spotty. We got PBS for free.
We also got ABC and NBC on a mostly regular basis (thus largely explaining my mad crush on Tom Brokaw) - and if the weather was just right and if my brother held the antenna a certain way, we could occasionally get CBS. But PBS was how folks in my town watched television - especially educational television. I can't tell you how many kids in my school probably learned to read watching episodes of Sesame Street.
Sesame Street targets “disadvantaged children” and aims to bring lessons “directly into the homes and classrooms of particularly vulnerable communities.” The mission of Public Broadcasting is to bring educational programming, like Sesame Street, to “all of America's children” -- including those who could not otherwise afford to pay.
Moore also suggested that PBS bring in advertisements to help pay for programming. But Tim Isgitt, senior vice-president for communications and government affairs at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, told Media Matters that “advertising would significantly limit our other funding sources; foundations provide funding because it is a public good and mission driven. They wouldn't do that if we were a commercial model, and individual members would be less likely to give money to an entity that is commercial.”