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Tuesday 23 December  
Lauren Comiteau's picture
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Amsterdam, Netherlands

Big Bird: Going the way of the Dodo?

Published on : 4 October 2012 - 4:39pm | By Lauren Comiteau (photo: ANP)
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It’s not often an oversized yellow bird takes center stage in an American presidential television debate. But with US Republican hopeful Mitt Romney potentially putting Sesame Street’s beloved Big Bird on the chopping block, the Twittersphere is once again driving the news as people ask: is Big Bird going the way of that other big flightless bird--the Dodo?

It started Wednesday night as a question in the first televised debate between the two contenders for US President: Republican Mitt Romney and incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama.

When asked how he would cut federal spending, Romney said one thing he would do is stop subsidizing US public television, or PBS, which includes the children's television programme Sesame Street, home of Big Bird and company, in its line-up.

“I love Big Bird…. 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]," said Romney.

The comment immediately went viral.

Ruffled feathers

A fake Twitter account, @FiredBigBird, whose bio reads “Just got fired by Mitt Romney,” has 25,000 followers as of this writing (up from 12,000 after the debate). Tweets for Big Bird reached a high of 17,000 per minute during the debate. "Obama killed bin Laden. Romney would put a hit on Big Bird," tweeted one Eli Clifton. And there’s even a new Big Bird for President Facebook page with a reported 5,000 likes.

With so much attention focused on the big feathered bird, we’re wondering: just how valuable is he and his muppet friends?

Sesame Street is incredibly valuable, we get much more back from it than we invest in it,” says Jessica Piotrowski, assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam and its Centre for Research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media. “There are thousands of research studies on Sesame Street showing that it supports children in their literacy skills, number skills and social behavior.”

All the more so, says Piotrowski, when those children are at an economic or social disadvantage. “For people without other educational resources—less income, not many books at home, less access to extra-curricular activities—the potential power of educational TV is incredible.”

Of course Sesame Street is just one educational TV programme on a public broadcasting service that, like others internationally, feels the heat of the economic crisis. But its worldwide success and longevity—it made its American debut in 1969—is virtually unprecedented.

It's a small world

Sesame Street is broadcast in more than 145 countries. Big Bird goes by the name of Paco Pico in Spain, Abelardo in Mexico, Pino in the Netherlands and Da Niao in China (where he’s billed as the cousin of America’s Big Bird). While generations of Americans may recognise him as an 8 foot 2 inch yellow bird, the Dutch Pino has blue feathers, while Mexico’s Abelardo is green. But whatever his colour, his mission is the same.

“Big Bird is emblematic of how to use an appealing method to teach, showing us that learning can be fun,” says Piotrowski of the “loveable, memorable character.” (Ironically, Big Bird may now be showing us that US presidential debates can be fun, too.)

If elected in November, Mitt Romney may want to send someone down to his colleagues at the State Department, who were convinced enough about the value of Sesame Street to help fund its Afghan version, Baghch-e-Simsim, in both Dari and Pashto.

Issues about cultural imperialism aside, the show aired last year with a special emphasis on girls’ education in a country where less than two-thirds of its children attend primary school (and that rate is even lower for girls). The women are veiled, the children more respectful and exercise replaces dancing to avoid controversy, but the bird remains the same.

Made in China

Even in China, a Mandarin version of Sesame Street is proving extremely popular. Zhima Jie debuted in 2010 with that big loveable bird as its star in “Big Bird Looks at the World” (he’s joined by the popular Elmo and a young tiger who loves martial arts). The locally developed show reached more than 1,000,000 families in its first two months of broadcast, say its producers—outperforming all the competition.

Which makes you wonder if contrary to having to borrow money from China to produce Sesame Street in the United States as Romney suggests, public broadcasting’s flagship programme could become a made in China import in a Romney-led America instead.


Anonymous 15 October 2012 - 8:58pm / U.S.A.

After the last brouhaha concerning PBS, one of their top officials said they DON'T NEED government/taxpayer money to put on their programs, including Sesame Street, so cutting off will not deprive the kiddies. We must all finally realize that much of the money that govt. gives away is borrowed from China. In fact, 43% of the money the Fed. spends is BORROWED!
Many Americans who benefit from PBS programming donate money during their fund drives. I am one of those who donate, although I am not interested in their many programs dealing with pet left-wing issues. If the Fed. govt. cut off funding, PBS and Big Bird will not go away.

Vera Gottlieb 15 October 2012 - 8:13pm / Switzerland

And the entire world is forced to endure this circus every four years! The best democracy money can buy.

david 379 9 October 2012 - 11:56pm / USA

I have a strong dislike for any man who would pick on children.

RDM 8 October 2012 - 11:02am / USA

Mitt Romney was simply grandstanding for the social conservatives in the U.S. who hate PBS. They've been trying unsuccessfully to kill PBS since the mid-80's as a part of the "culture wars." Republicans hate PBS because they perceive a so-called "liberal bias" within its programming that doesn't fit their narrow worldview. For example, PBS might also air programs that show the theory of evolution in a positive light. Other programs might warn of the dangers of global warming. (Most American conservatives like Romney deny evolution and think that global warming is a hoax.) The annual government funding for PBS is so small that it equals what the Pentagon spends in just six hours every day for the war in Afghanistan. It's strange that we can always find the money to kill people and do harm in the world but we can never find the money to do good in the world.

saskia 11 October 2012 - 4:10am

Nonsense again.Some Republicans ,like me, enjoy much of what PBS has to offer & anyone with a brain can see it has an extreme "liberal bias" & PBS pushes that bias every chance it gets. That is why I don't donate any money & don't want any of my tax dollars supporting a station that does not fairly represent my views as well. If it goes down for lack of funds...fine...something else will rise up . For less money I can read all the news from any sites I want & buy the films I desire to see. Why should I support PBS ? They don't support me .It's PBS (& perhaps people like you) who hold the "narrow worldview" & feel it necessary to demonize those who who hold opposing views as hateful.PBS is entertainment...not Mother Teresa.

ECasso 13 October 2012 - 11:14pm / USA

As an Independent voter, I do support PBS which I think actually gives the most balanced insights to various global and domestic issues (and not just "entertainment") at only 0.012% federal budget. I'm glad that PBS is alive and well as an alternative to all other cable news channels, and I'm happy to help pay for these programs. Also, if someone seriously thinks that by eliminating 0.012% federal spending, not raising any taxes, and all the while increasing military budget (now already at 20% of federal budget) is going to decrease our deficit, then this someone needs to go back to do some serious middle-school remedial math. I also wonder why some people decide to comment freely on this public radio site while not supporting even a tiny-bit of public broadcast funding, hmm...

janv 7 October 2012 - 4:55pm / canada

I cannot believe I read this!

david 379 7 October 2012 - 1:24pm / usa

Rommney and his kind do not care about anytihng other then their own personal wealth. He will tell any lie to further that end.

Anonymous 7 October 2012 - 1:19pm / usa

Mit Rommney is an example of pure greeed. He seeks to show his distain for any one who is not rich.

Anonymous 5 October 2012 - 4:33am / USA

Well in all do respect to the rest of the world and especially to the Netherlands and RNW, everything that is subsidized with public funds must be reappraised,as you know very well. And regarding Sesame Street programing it is,and has been a very profitable " Commercial" enterprise for many years, and has it's sponsors which will continue to follow it into the private commercial market either on cable or mainstream stations. It's time to thin out and slim down all these tax payer subsidy. They can do just fine on their own and will, the talent isn't going to leave because it has to go support itself. And it's not going to get picked up by China that's nonsense.

saskia 4 October 2012 - 6:35pm / usa-Nederland

This article is nonsense & not real journalism. PBS does not have to be foolish & borrow money from China. That is idiotic propaganda because they are scared of losing their jobs. They can raise all of the money, like the wise do and Big Bird is not beloved by all Americans & never helped anyone to read. He is just for entertainment & kids toys.If you want to teach someone to read ,in any language , you teach phonics...a code for unlocking the sounds of the letters. I home taught my kids to read in 3- months & in less than a year they were years ahead of their peers & they all became successful . The American education system is a disgrace & failing. Big Bird does nothing to improve it. The public broadcasting stations that airs Sesame Street etc. are very nervous because Romney will cut the money they get from our taxes...forcing them to raise more private money to stay afloat. I do not want to give them any of my taxes. This biased liberal station is not essential & does not reflect the public's views....only their agenda. Do not be so blind Europa ...en kleine Nederland.You have received only biased news from PBS/NPR etc. They have misrepresented Mitt Romney every chance they get. It takes some work to discover the truth today . Work ...remember what that is ?

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