If there's one thing that became clear in last night's first presidential debate, it's that a whole lot of people love PBS. (That, and President Barack Obama was not on his A game.)
Twitter reported 17,000 tweets per minute for "Big Bird" and 10,000 tweets per minute for "PBS" in the hours after GOP nominee Mitt Romney told the debate audience: "I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS," and then, adding hastily as he looked at moderator and PBS NewsHour executive director Jim Lehrer, "I like PBS. I like Big Bird. I like you, too."
While Romney apparently enjoys the public broadcaster's programming, it's one of the first places he's repeatedly said he'd go as president to make cuts. PBS gets its funding from a number of sources, including foundations, corporations, private citizens and — yes — government agencies. Romney believes that taxpayer funding isn't necessary.
PBS NewsHour, one of the broadcaster's most popular shows, brings in a much smaller audience than other evening news shows on networks such as ABC, CBS, and NBC, according to Nielsen. Its prime time ratings are higher than many commercial channels, but lower than most of the other major networks.
And yet the federal government appropriated about $445 million in fiscal year 2012 to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports both PBS and NPR. So how much is that, really, compared to other government spending?
Here's some more context:
The PBS budget is far less than the defense budget, which was $676 billion this year. It is far less than the amount budgeted by the State Department for either Afghanistan or Iraq in 2012, which was $2.3 billion and $1.0 billion, respectively. It it less than half the level of unpaid taxes by federal employees, which were estimated to equal $1.03 billion at the end of fiscal year 2010. It's less than one third the total Amtrak receives in federal funding, having gotten $1.4 billion in federal capital grants and operating subsidies in 2012. It's several hundred million dollars less than the amount allotted for federal office space acquisition, which is estimated at $864 million a year.
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PBS federal funding is more, however, than Republicans recently estimated they could save if they cut from the International Fund for Ireland, the subsidy for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, or money that goes to congressional printing and binding.
Despite PBS's smaller audiences, well-known astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson concluded Wednesday night that cutting funding to the broadcaster was silly, comparatively:
Cutting PBS support (0.012% of budget) to help balance the Federal budget is like deleting text files to make room on your 500Gig hard drive
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) October 4, 2012
More than 45,000 people retweeted his words, including one person who wrote: "Can't you run for pres[ident]?"