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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
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And I'm Robert Siegel. Big Bird has unexpectedly become a central figure in the race for the White House. President Obama today released an ad making fun of his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, for something he said during last week's debate. Romney vowed to cut federal support for public broadcasting, which includes Big Bird's home on "Sesame Street." As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, both camps think they're on the winning side of the issue.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: While governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney supported tax credits that helped the local producers of public TV shows gain millions of dollars. At last week's presidential debate, however, here's the Republican challenger telling PBS' Jim Lehrer that the stations that take "NewsHour" wouldn't be getting anymore federal dollars under a Romney administration.
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FOLKENFLIK: There were said to be 17,000 tweets per minute about Big Bird and PBS during the debate, and Big Bird himself showed up on "Saturday Night Live."
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FOLKENFLIK: The Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives approximately 445 million federal dollars a year. Nearly three-quarters of that is set aside for public television stations and programming. About a quarter is set aside for public radio. Mr. Obama was silent on the matter during the debate but more recently found in it a rallying cry.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When he was asked what he'd actually do to cut the deficit and reduce spending, he said he'd eliminate funding for public television.
FOLKENFLIK: Here was the president campaigning in Virginia.
OBAMA: I mean, thank goodness, somebody is finally getting tough on Big Bird. It's about time.
FOLKENFLIK: And then his campaign put out a new commercial bought on national cable channels to get the press' attention.
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FOLKENFLIK: It's postmodern, a negative ad that is itself a spoof of negative ads.
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FOLKENFLIK: Romney spokesman Kevin Madden fired back with an identical critique.
KEVIN MADDEN: ...household incomes going down. You've got a federal deficit - federal debt that's now over $16 trillion. And I just find it troubling that the president's message, the president's focus 28 days from Election Day is Big Bird.
FOLKENFLIK: President Reagan moved to kill funding for PBS in the early 1980s, and then House Speaker Newt Gingrich did so again in the mid-1990s. Former Pennsylvania Congressman Robert Walker was a top Gingrich lieutenant at the time. He says some lawmakers were swamped with calls, but all of them fielded complaints.
ROBERT WALKER: The people who were in contact with me tended to be pretty influential people in the district, and certainly, that had an impact. I think many other members found the same thing.
FOLKENFLIK: Plans to eliminate funding were scaled back, but Walker says the time may now be ripe. "Sesame Street" receives about $5.5 million annually from PBS. Its annual revenues of more than $130 million a year rely much more on foundation grants and merchandise sales involving Elmo and other favorites. The public television stations themselves would be much more vulnerable. As for Big Bird, he wants out. "Sesame Street" says it has asked for images of its characters to be removed from materials from both camps. It says the great yellow tufted one wants no part of partisan politics. David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.