WASHINGTON — Puppets urged politicians Saturday to keep up federal funding for US public broadcasting after Republican presidential challenger Mitt Romney threatened to pull the plug on Big Bird and friends.
Organizers of the Million Puppet March on Capitol Hill in support of Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) television and National Public Radio (NPR) put the turnout at around 1,000 people, three days before the US presidential vote.
Characters from the children's show "Sesame Street" -- a PBS staple since the network's founding in 1970 -- figured prominently, including two Big Birds, many Kermits and Elmos, and a Miss Piggy grooving to "Dancing in the Streets."
But the family-friendly rally on a chilly and cloudy day also attracted a frisky marionette of President Barack Obama and a blue-suited protester in a Mitt Romney mask jammed into a trash can with Big Bird on his back.
There was no shortage of sometimes witty placards, like "Keep your Mitts off Big Bird," "puppets for peace" and, on the arm of a middle-aged gentleman with a skunk puppet, "Romney smells funny."
"We're just making it clear that public media matters and it's something that we want to see supported and we still want to see federal funding of," said co-organizer Michael Bellavia, a Los Angeles animation producer.
"We think the system that's there now works, where it's a mix of private and public financing," he told AFP.
Triggering the protest was Romney's pledge, during a televised election debate with Obama last month, that he would end federal support for PBS and its 354 non-profit member stations if we wins the White House race.
"I like PBS. I love Big Bird," said Romney, name-checking the leggy yellow character who teaches the alphabet on "Sesame Street," but warning: "I'm gonna stop the subsidy to PBS."
PBS was not involved in organizing Saturday's protest, but it has said the "federal investment" in public broadcasting is only "about one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget."
Craig Aaron, chief executive of Free Press, a media advocacy group, put the figure Saturday at $440 million per year, or about $1.50 per American -- less than a cup of coffee.
Even that amount covers only 15 percent of the total cost of public television and radio in a nation where big corporations dominate broadcasting. Donations from individuals and foundations make up most of the rest.
To halt supporting public broadcasting "would be the same as saying we don't want to support Santa Claus," said professional puppeteer Scott Land, the man pulling the strings of the Obama marionette. "People would be outraged."
Critics counter that, with the federal deficit running at $1.1 trillion this year, federal spending cuts have to start somewhere, and that public TV and radio can easily find other ways to pay its bills.
"The Big Bird fracas illustrates how out of touch with reality our budget fights have become," Trevor Burrus, a policy analyst at the conservative Cato Institute think tank, wrote in USA Today this week.
Besides "Sesame Street," PBS is best known for commercial-free current affairs shows, major documentaries and science programming. It also brings British dramas such as "Downton Abbey" to American audiences.
The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, set up by Congress to oversee federal support for public TV and radio, kept its distance from Saturday's protest. But in a brief statement to AFP, it said: "We appreciate the recent outpouring of support and affirmation for the value of public broadcasting.
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