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Local Editorials

Big Bird is doing just fine, with or without Uncle Sam’s handout

Like many Americans, I didn’t watch last week’s presidential debate as it aired. Instead, I watched it on replay so I didn’t lose quality time with my kids.

But, like many of those who watched it, live or otherwise, it’s difficult to say it wasn’t an incredible victory for Gov. Mitt Romney. When the only point your opponent can make is that you want to defund “Big Bird,” you know you had a good day.

Elections aren’t won by single debates, though, a point I’m sure the Romney camp is well aware. And, typically, I really wouldn’t have anything to say about it. But the whole Big Bird issue has suddenly taken flight — OK, so perhaps there’s an intended pun there — and I can’t help but point out the hypocrisy of such a debate argument.

Let’s face it, Big Bird ain’t hurting.

The 8-foot-2-inch-tall primrose yellow bird is a Muppet employed by the Sesame Workshop, formerly the Children’s Television Workshop. According to a 2009 IRS Form 990 — the most recent tax form the nonprofit provides the public on its website — the “workshop” employed more than 1,300 people and reported approximately $130.6 million in revenue and $351.1 million in total assets.

That year, Sesame Workshop received a hair under $8 million in government grants. Meanwhile, royalties from Sesame Street-themed products of all sorts totaled just a hair under $45 million and its programming generated $29.9 million.

According to the nonprofit’s most recent audit, revenues had increased to $132.4 million, while total assets had swollen to $355.9 million. The “down economy” hasn’t hurt Sesame Workshop too badly, I guess.

Now, those are a lot of big numbers, but in a nutshell, Sesame Workshop won’t have to cease operations if it loses the $8 to $10 million it gets from the federal government. In 2009, they were forced to cut 20 percent of their workforce, and survived. In 2011, their payroll accounted for $54 million.

Not bad for a nonprofit.

“But isn’t this about PBS?” you may ask.

OK. PBS — the Public Broadcasting Service — is the “network” through which local public broadcasting stations get media content. Unlike Sesame Workshop, PBS doesn’t make its IRS Form 990 or audit reports available for public review on its extensive website.

But, from other Form 990’s, we know PBS gets the bulk of its funding via the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which was created by Congress as a private, not-for-profit corporation to facilitate the development of public media. The CPB distributes its federal funds under a formula set by law in which 72 percent goes to PBS and the local stations.

However, it also funds the creation of content for radio, television and other platforms, including Sesame Workshop. In accordance with the law, CPB’s tax returns also are a matter of public record and are available online.

For the most recent year available — last year — CPB reported a total of $459.9 million in revenue of which nearly $449 million came in the form of congressional appropriations. And, even though CPB’s role is to serve as a pass-through organization for government funds, net assets at the end of the year totaled $63.6 million.

In other words, with good stewardship, the CPB has the ability to turn charitable contributions into assets that can be used to fund future programming, even without congressional funding. The question open for public debate is whether or not much of the quality programming available on PBS could find mainstream audiences — and revenue streams — in today’s digital landscape.

Based on these financials, it would certainly seem to indicate that good programming would easily find a home, and continue to be very profitable — even as nonprofit ventures — in today’s world.


Newspaper Week

This week, we will be celebrating the annual observance of National Newspaper Week here at the Daily News.

A couple years ago, the Iowa Newspaper Association conducted a couple studies on newspaper readership. They came up with some statistics I thought you might find enlightening.

For instance, did you know that 86 percent of Iowans read at least one newspaper a week? Only 80 percent of Iowans have access to the Internet, by comparison. But, of those who do have Internet availability in their homes or at work, 53 percent access newspaper websites at least once per month.

Fifty percent of Iowans want to receive advertising inserts in their newspaper, as opposed to direct-mail advertising. Better still, 78 percent of Iowans look for inserts in their newspaper.

If you’re reading this, thank a teacher. If you’re reading it in English, thank a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine.

Bob Eschliman is editor of the Daily News. He may be contacted at (641) 792-3121, ext. 423, or at via email.

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