Big Bird: Going the way of the Dodo?

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It’s not often an oversized yellow bird takes center stage in an American presidential television debate. But with US Republican hopeful Mitt Romney potentially putting Sesame Street’s beloved Big Bird on the chopping block, the Twittersphere is once again driving the news as people ask: is Big Bird going the way of that other big flightless bird--the Dodo?

It started Wednesday night as a question in the first televised debate between the two contenders for US President: Republican Mitt Romney and incumbent Democratic President Barack Obama.

When asked how he would cut federal spending, Romney said one thing he would do is stop subsidizing US public television, or PBS, which includes the children's television programme Sesame Street, home of Big Bird and company, in its line-up.

“I love Big Bird…. But I'm not going to -- I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for [it]," said Romney.

The comment immediately went viral.

Ruffled feathers

A fake Twitter account, @FiredBigBird, whose bio reads “Just got fired by Mitt Romney,” has 25,000 followers as of this writing (up from 12,000 after the debate). Tweets for Big Bird reached a high of 17,000 per minute during the debate. "Obama killed bin Laden. Romney would put a hit on Big Bird," tweeted one Eli Clifton. And there’s even a new Big Bird for President Facebook page with a reported 5,000 likes.

With so much attention focused on the big feathered bird, we’re wondering: just how valuable is he and his muppet friends?

Sesame Street is incredibly valuable, we get much more back from it than we invest in it,” says Jessica Piotrowski, assistant professor at the University of Amsterdam and its Centre for Research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media. “There are thousands of research studies on Sesame Street showing that it supports children in their literacy skills, number skills and social behavior.”

All the more so, says Piotrowski, when those children are at an economic or social disadvantage. “For people without other educational resources—less income, not many books at home, less access to extra-curricular activities—the potential power of educational TV is incredible.”

Of course Sesame Street is just one educational TV programme on a public broadcasting service that, like others internationally, feels the heat of the economic crisis. But its worldwide success and longevity—it made its American debut in 1969—is virtually unprecedented.

It's a small world

Sesame Street is broadcast in more than 145 countries. Big Bird goes by the name of Paco Pico in Spain, Abelardo in Mexico, Pino in the Netherlands and Da Niao in China (where he’s billed as the cousin of America’s Big Bird). While generations of Americans may recognise him as an 8 foot 2 inch yellow bird, the Dutch Pino has blue feathers, while Mexico’s Abelardo is green. But whatever his colour, his mission is the same.

“Big Bird is emblematic of how to use an appealing method to teach, showing us that learning can be fun,” says Piotrowski of the “loveable, memorable character.” (Ironically, Big Bird may now be showing us that US presidential debates can be fun, too.)

If elected in November, Mitt Romney may want to send someone down to his colleagues at the State Department, who were convinced enough about the value of Sesame Street to help fund its Afghan version, Baghch-e-Simsim, in both Dari and Pashto.

Issues about cultural imperialism aside, the show aired last year with a special emphasis on girls’ education in a country where less than two-thirds of its children attend primary school (and that rate is even lower for girls). The women are veiled, the children more respectful and exercise replaces dancing to avoid controversy, but the bird remains the same.

Made in China

Even in China, a Mandarin version of Sesame Street is proving extremely popular. Zhima Jie debuted in 2010 with that big loveable bird as its star in “Big Bird Looks at the World” (he’s joined by the popular Elmo and a young tiger who loves martial arts). The locally developed show reached more than 1,000,000 families in its first two months of broadcast, say its producers—outperforming all the competition.

Which makes you wonder if contrary to having to borrow money from China to produce Sesame Street in the United States as Romney suggests, public broadcasting’s flagship programme could become a made in China import in a Romney-led America instead.