I thought the aftermath of the first presidential debate had conclusively shown that Big Bird is at least 1/32 vulture, but then it occurred to me that vultures, unlike giant muppet birds, fill a very important ecological niche. No, Big Bird is more like a brood parasite–a Yellow-headed Cowbird, maybe–laying its financial eggs in the federal taxpayer nest. He then uses the muppet avian mafia tactics of looking cute and crying about The Children to get us to keep shovelling sustenance down his brood's gaping maw.
While I like that analogy and I think it illustrates an important point, the real issue here isn't so much birds as it is cows. Specifically, sacred cows.
In the '70s, and even into the '80s, there may have been a reasonable justification for federally-funded non-commercial public broadcasting. In the broadcasting environment of that time, if you wanted to transmit content to the world, you needed expensive equipment, studios, a professionally trained staff, and you had to deal with the FCC. Not only did you have to deal with the Byzantine FCC application process and arbitrary "standards and practices", you had fees upon expensive fees you had to pay: Application Processing Fees, Annual Regulatory Fees, FOIA Fees, etc. You could argue that broadcast frequencies fall within the public domain and, therefore, must be used for the public good, yet because of all of the expense and trouble involved in running a broadcasting business a purely commercial broadcasting industry would not necessarily have the incentive to broadcast less-popular, yet important, content or to serve minority (in the most general sense) audiences. Within this context, an entity like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting makes some sense.
One thing the Left has always lectured us about is the importance of context–I think it's all part of that whole moral relativism dealio–and that context is constantly changing and we must change with it. Well, the context of shared human media, with the spreading ubiquity of cable, direct broadcast satellite, cell technology, and the Internet, has changed very dramatically since the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. You could even say that the context of the CPB itself has changed. Where we once had an underdog scraping for every last dollar it could find just to stay alive, we've now got a media empire. Where the primary mission of educating the public was once evident from the broadcast content, we've now got Antiques Roadshows and crappy, unoriginal pop music masquerading as culture and the credentialed Lexus-driving public service majors who broadcast this stuff are making a pile of money off of it.
Yet every time they open their beggin' holes, all we hear is that in order to save American high culture and keep The Children from devolving into babbling illiterates we must save PBS from their supposed perpetual poverty. The practical financial argument for removing entities like the CPB and NPR from the federal teat is straightforward: they do very well with private grants and contributions and their level of need is small compared to our level of debt. The rationale that because their need is so comparatively small that we should just pay up is so sophomoric and absurd that it almost doesn't merit a response.
More significant than the practical financial argument is the symbolic one and that's where those sacred cows come meandering in. Like expensive urban bike paths ($30 million!), massively overpriced taxpayer subsidized passenger choo-choos ($30, $40, $50…$100 billion…who knows?), and "green" technology (a "mere" half billion), federally-subsidized public broadcasting is one of the Left's most sacred of cows. It's so sacred that some Leftists believe it merits a massive protest march on the nation's capitol like Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. No, really, it's not a joke. You can count on it that many Liberals really believe that federally-subsidized public broadcasting is, seriously-no-shit, a civil rights issue on par with equal job opportunities and freedom for black citizens. Defunding public broadcasting is symbolically important because if we can't get Liberals to see reason or force them into a corner where they must accept the inevitable on an issue as trivial as federal funding for public broadcasting, how will we ever pry their ideological claws out of the sacred cows which are costing us serious money?
Defunding the CPB is not going to kill Big Bird and it certainly won't have an impact on childhood literacy in the US, but it would show that our elected representatives are taking our financial problems seriously.