Is television doomed?

Whether you watched last week’s first presidential debate or flipped through hundreds of other channels only to find the Kardashians give some sort of new, profound meaning to your own life, it’s impossible by now to have not heard Mitt Romney’s pledge to end federal subsidies to PBS. Since the curtain closed on the debate more than a week ago, I still can’t seem to check my email without, at some point, staring into the blue eyes of a yellow bird with an apparent thyroid problem.

I admit, the Big Bird jokes were funny at first, but the masterminds working in the realm of politics sure do know how to milk an attention-grabber for all it’s worth. The Obama campaign went so far as using the beloved childhood figure in a political attack add earlier this week, comparing the large yellow fowl to the likes of Bernie Madoff and Ken Lay (some of the most notoriously corrupt financial figures). PBS quickly denounced the add with a request that “both campaigns remove Sesame Street characters and trademarks from their campaign materials.”

Finally, the Big Bird talk has petered out but the question still remains: Why, given the current economic crisis, recent attacks on United States’ Embassies, the looming threat of a new-age holy war, war in Afghanistan, a failing public education system, and a degree of political and societal divisions not seen in this country since the Civil War, did we pay attention to this stupid story ... for a week?

Personally, I was surprised that Romney’s commitment to cut federal funding to PBS ignited so much hype in the first place, from both a political and media standpoint. Federal subsidies only account for roughly 15 percent of the organization’s annual revenue, according to the PBS website (a quantity I think can be more than made up for with Sesame Street royalties, products and of course, what’s made possible from the financial support of viewers like you). PBS could function perfectly without a government subsidy. As for Romney’s claim that cutting lines like PBS funding from the federal budget to minimize the nation’s deficit? It’s just a drop in the bucket, if ever there was a good time to use the expression. Of all the budget line items to cut from, he chose PBS. The imagination of that man knows no bounds.

Of course, this isn’t to say the Obama campaign is free of criticism. If anything, they’re more to blame for the Big Bird exposure simply for continually keeping the issue at the forefront of people’s memories. For days, they added fuel to the fire, making remarks like Romney is less concerned about Wall Street than he is about Sesame Street. The entire Big Bird debacle was an obvious distraction – something shiny for the American people to look at to divert attention away from the President’s poor debate performance, and I think was well executed (news stories for Big Bird are still making headlines).

Amidst the Big Bird fiasco, I think what’s most unfortunate is that while Romney’s message to cut funding from PBS was loud and clear, no one seemed to take it seriously. Granted, jokes at the expense of a cast of unemployed felt puppets are more entertaining; but it feels like the broader point was missed and maybe there should have been more outcry about the issue at hand. As I said, PBS would survive without federal subsidies; however, a cut in funding would hurt the locally owned and operated PBS membership stations that mainly serve rural areas such as ours. Anyone who’s watched television lately knows what a devastating blow this would be to whatever little integrity is left in television programming. PBS has the most – dare I say, the only – educational programming on the air. The History Channel sold out long ago and even TLC (The Learning Channel) reached the bottom of the barrel when they first aired “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo.”

Sadly, if television is a reflection of our current culture, we’re going nowhere’s fast. It’s funny to think that at one time, it was widely believed and even feared, that television was capable of putting teachers out of work. Now, PBS is all that’s left to show the rest of the world we can still use mass media for educational purposes.

The vice presidential debate is tonight. I can’t wait to see what non-story comes of it.

Follow me on Twitter .... @evesunshawn.

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