The internet's rabid social media contingent, activating its rapid-fire tendency to isolate and magnify the slightest silliness of the day's news, immediately zeroed in on Mitt Romney's assertion on Wednesday night that while he "loves Big Bird," he plans on cutting the federal subsidy for Sesame Street's home network, the Public Broadcasting Service.
Almost instantly, Twitter lit up; "Big Bird" peaked at 17,000 tweets per minute, "Sesame Street" hit 10,000, and #SaveSesameStreet became the top trending topic on the microblogging service. Three parody accounts such as @FiredBigBird and @SadBigBird -- cropped up, to varying comedy efficacy, and then on Thursday morning, the official Sesame Street feed nodded at the uproar, tweeting, "Big Bird: My bed time is usually 7:45, but I was really tired yesterday and fell asleep at 7! Did I miss anything last night?"
Meanwhile, the Sesame Workshop, the non-profit that runs the show and its ancillary projects and foundations, was slightly more serious in its response, tweeting, "We are a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization. We do not comment on campaigns, but we’re happy we can all agree that everyone likes Big Bird!"
For all the fun and games -- as well as sweeping reply-all to what must be a record number of press inquiries -- the tweet's lead statement is notable for its seeming acknowledgment of the deeper partisan issue that has long kept it in the budgetary crosshairs. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is slotted to received $444 million in federal funds in 2015, a fiscal drop in the bucket but a symbolic gold mine.
The conservative moment has long accused CPB, and its chief TV station, PBS, of having a liberal bias. The CPB was created in 1969 to help public access broadcasters. It gets about 15 percent of its funding from the federal government; the rest comes from corporate backers and the generosity of viewers like you (including the lucrative donation-for-totebag deal they offer in telethons). But it's the federal support that rankles the GOP, given its programming.
Its long-form journalism and documentaries have won countless Emmys, and provide one of the last homes for the investigative field in a hyper-driven world. But anchors such as Bill Moyers and last night's debate moderator Jim Lehrer have often been called liberal; Moyers, for his part, doesn't deny his worldview. He was once an aide to President Lyndon Johnson.
Sesame Street, too, has come under fire for a perceived left lean. Though a show meant to educate children, its urban setting, multi-cultural cast, and heavy concern for environmental issues can give the impression that it is coming from the largely Democratic inner-city. Big Bird even ran for president during an episode of the show in 1976, though he did not identify with either major party. Thanks to America's two party system, his candidacy didn't go very far.
In 2005, PBS' president, Pat Mitchell, traded words with Kenneth Tomlinson, the CPB chair appointed by President George W. Bush. He admitted that he had hired an outside advisor to monitor Moyers' program for liberal bias, and she responded with a bit of anger in a speech at the National Press Club.
"Our responsibility is to tell the truth whatever the cost," she said. "At times, that does lead people to question our motives or even suggest an agenda. But PBS does not belong to any one constituency or political party. PBS has steadfastly not given into pressure, and that resolve is rock-solid today."
The attack on PBS has continued since then. Romney himself has made no secret of his intent to cut its funding. In 2011, he said that while he "didn't want to kill Big Bird," he thought that Sesame Street should have commercials in order to make enough money to run.
For their part, the Sesame Workshop says that with or without federal funds, they'll be okay -- and that Big Bird will not have to fly the coop.
"We are able to raise our funding through philanthropic, through our licensed product, which goes back into the educational programming, through corporate underwriting and sponsorship," Sherrie Westin, executive VP and chief marketing officer of the Workshop, told CNN's Soledad O'Brien Thursday. "So quite frankly, you can debate whether or not there should be funding of public broadcasting. But when they always try to tout out Big Bird, and say we're going to kill Big Bird – that is actually misleading, because Sesame Street will be here."
Judging by the Twitter outrage over the event last night, it may have many instant donors (including stars such as Olivia Wilde and Whoopi Goldberg). But once the hoopla fades away -- give it one spin cycle at most -- PBS will be a quiet battleground once again.