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Debate thrusts ‘Sesame Street’ into presidential campaign

“We do not comment on campaigns, but we’re happy we can all agree that everyone likes Big Bird,” said a Sesame Workshop spokeswoman.

During his Oct. 3 debate with President Barack Obama, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called for cutting federal fundingto PBS, despite saying, “I love Big Bird.” His comment renewed a long-running debate over subsidies to public broadcasting.

“I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS,” the former Massachusetts governor said during a deficit-cutting discussion. “I’m going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too, Jim (Lehrer, PBS newsman and debate moderator). But I’m not going to … keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”

PBS chief Paula Kerger said she “just about fell off the sofa” when the issue suddenly came up during the debate. She said that if the subsidy goes, so will some PBS stations.

Federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting totals $450 million this year, accounting for about 15 percent of the CPB’s budget, she said. Federal money supplements the budgets of PBS’s 179 stations nationally. For some of the smaller stations in rural areas, this subsidy accounts for more than half of its yearly budget, so many can’t operate without it.

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Considering Romney stressed the importance of education, Kerger said she hopes he realizes the extent of educational programming that PBS offers. Four out of five children under age 5 watch public television, where “Sesame Street” is a long-running hit, she said.

“To me, public television is like mom and apple pie,” she said. “Maybe it’s because I’m just too close to it. Maybe it’s because I talk to so many people for whom public television is a lifeline.”

But public broadcasting funding has been a frequent target of congressional Republicans, who believe PBS and National Public Radio favor liberal points of view.

“It is demoralizing to have our work put in the middle of this debate,” Kerger said. “We don’t belong here.”

The issue quickly became a hot topic on social media, where Twitter reported a peak of 17,000 tweets per second about Big Bird. The hashtag #SaveBigBird quickly sprouted up.

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