PBS Chief Talks Election Stakes and 'Sesame Street' Firings

Paula Kerger TCA Getty H 2016
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Paula Kerger relives Mitt Romney's viral "Kill Big Bird" comment from the 2012 campaign.

Paula Kerger appeared relieved that her institution has yet to be invoked in any conversations this election year. The PBS president and CEO, speaking Thursday at the Television Critics Association's summer press tour, was asked to relive 2012's "Kill Big Bird" scandal during her executive Q&A.
"It's not a place we'd ever been before, and not a place I hope we'll be in the future," Kerger told reporters.
She's speaking, of course, of the cultural conniption that took place during the last presidential election when then-GOP nominee Mitt Romney announced during a debate that he would cut public broadcast funding. “I’m sorry, Jim, I’m gonna stop the subsidy to PBS,” Romney told moderator (and PBS NewsHour executive editor) Jim Lehrer. “I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I’m not gonna keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it.”
Thus far, PBS subsidies has not come up during any political conversations. And while Kerger is happy with that, she also took the opportunity to clarify the role those subsidies play. 
"Since no one is talking about public broadcasting, and I'm not encouraging that debate, I just need to make sure people understand who we are," she added. "Fifteen percent of the funding for public broadcast comes from federal resources, and that primarily goes to stations. The consequence of any reduction would mean that many of those stations would in fact go off the air."
Kerger was careful not to mention any candidate by name, though she also noted that Senate and House races are more important to PBS — since they are the ones more intimately involved with constituents. "People who end up supporting public broadcasting are of all stripes and sizes," she said, referring to the many young and cash-strapped viewers who rely on PBS for news and other programming. "If we continue to stay focused on that during this strange election process, we'll be doing the best we can."
Big Bird and Sesame Street, while still airing on PBS, have a much different relationship with the broadcaster than in 2012. HBO now foots the bill and has first-run rights to the iconic children's program. For that reason, Kerger emphasized that she had no role or knowledge of the controversial firings of longtime castmembers Bob McGrath (who played music teacher Bob), Emilio Delgado (fix-it shop owner Luis) and Roscoe Orman (science teacher Gordon). 
"As you know, Sesame Street is produced by Sesame Street Workshop, and the casting decision was made by them," the exec said. "We did not know about it beforehand. We found out about it after."