At least five public TV stations have pledged to air a controversial episode of Postcards from Buster, dropped last week by PBS, that features two families headed by lesbian parents—despite strenuous objections by the nation’s new secretary of education, whose department provides significant funding for the series.
About 20 other stations were considering running the show last week after viewing a preview tape that producer WGBH beamed by satellite to member stations on Thursday, said station spokeswoman Jeanne Hopkins.
The controversy over the cartoon bunny comes at an awkward time for PBS, as it prepares to compete for renewed Ready to Learn funding from the Education Department. The agency has said it will divide a $24 million pot among as many as four grantees for five-year programming and outreach contracts (earlier story). In the 10-year existence of the RTL program, CPB or PBS has administered the grants.
The department said it will publish a request for proposals soon; it wasn’t ready to publish on the intended date of Jan. 21, said Education Department press secretary Susan Aspey. Education officials say the competition will be limited to “public telecommunications entities,” as previously required, and not opened up to all nonprofits, according to APTS President John Lawson.
Postcards from Buster, which debuted in October, is a series designed for 4- to 8-year-olds (particularly those who speak English as a second language) that celebrates the nation’s cultural diversity as it teaches language awareness. The animated Buster, who got his start on PBS’s popular Arthur, is superimposed on live-action footage featuring real kids and their parents in diverse communities.
In the canceled episode, “Sugartime!,” Buster visits rural Hinesburg, Vt., where he meets a family with three kids and two moms during maple sugar season.
According to WGBH’s Hopkins, PBS officials and Education Department officials were aware of the show’s touchy subject matter last fall, though conversations with PBS about a possible controversy didn’t really begin until December. When Education officials requested a rough cut of the episode in late December or early January, WGBH provided it.
The behind-the-scenes discussions became public Jan. 22 when the Boston Globe reported that PBS would delay the scheduled Feb. 2 broadcast until late March to allow stations to preview it. PBS President Pat Mitchell had viewed the tape and was comfortable with the portrayal of the two families, network spokeswoman Lea Sloan said in the Globe.
However, PBS reversed itself three days later, after station execs became aware of the episode’s content and some reacted negatively, said John Wilson, PBS programming co-chief. Wilson took pains to emphasize that the network told station managers it would drop the episode several hours before the network received a letter on Jan. 25 from new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. The communication, citing “strong and very serious concerns” about the episode, insisted that PBS refund RTL money used to make the program if the network distributes it.
Wilson recalled the episode concept and script put lesbian parenting in the background. “We thought it could be sensitively handled and it would be fine,” he said. But when some stations objected, “we felt the unintended controversy was going to . . . undermine the efficacy of the episode.”
“Betrayed” by PBS
One of the mothers featured in the show, Tracy Harris—who found her life turned upside down by the controversy—told Current she felt “betrayed” by PBS.
Both families “thought long and hard before we agreed to do this project,” she said. “We were aware of the political climate, and in things involving our children we usually err on the side of caution. But we did a lot of research on this program’s goals and objectives and we had faith and trust in PBS . . . that they would defend it and stand behind it,” said Harris, of Charlotte, Vt.
WGBH, Boston, which produces the show in conjunction with Cookie Jar Entertainment and Marc Brown Studios, stands behind the program and will air it locally, said Hopkins. WNET, New York; KQED, San Francisco, Vermont PTV and the New Jersey Network also said they would air the episode.
One station chief who had expressed concern about the subject matter was Moss Bresnahan, president of South Carolina ETV, said Catherine Christman, v.p., communications, explaining, “We believe parents should choose the time and place to introduce this sensitive topic to children, and we had expressed that concern to the series producers in Boston.”
SCETV had its own struggle with an anti-gay politician in December. A state representative urged slashing its budget for airing a gay documentary. Christman said SCETV had never hesitated to air public affairs and other grown-up programming on gay-related issues but felt the subject was unsuitable for children’s programming.
Vermont PTV execs were shown an early cut of the episode in December and the station said last week it will air the episode because of high local interest, said spokeswoman Ann Curran. “Civil unions and families who have parents in civil unions are part of the culture of Vermont and children in Vermont generally know about them. We feel it’s an appropriate decision for our local community,” she said.
It is the case that funders don’t have editorial involvement in our programs, and that’s airtight with primetime and public affairs programs,” said Hopkins. “In the children’s programming, however, there’s more communication between parties to make sure stipulated educational goals are reached, she said.
Spellings’ chilling letter to Mitchell came on the education secretary’s second day on the job. The secretary had been assistant to the president for domestic policy.
Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode. Congress’s and the Department’s purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television,” Spellings wrote.
It is unclear whether federal officials knew PBS had just decided not to distribute the episode when it sent the missive to Mitchell. APTS officials had informed the department and Hill staffers Tuesday afternoon of the turn of events “within two minutes of being told by PBS,” said Jeff Davis, APTS spokesman.
PBS has asked WGBH to produce a new episode to honor the 40-show contract stipulated in the RTL grant and to strip off the PBS logo and any signs of the Education Department’s involvement when it distributes the program, Wilson said. A Buster episode costs approximately $200,000 and RTL contributes about 60 percent of that, said Hopkins.
Harris said she has not even seen the episode, filmed last March, that has thrust her family and friends into the limelight. “If PBS has just aired it as usual, people would have seen that the lesbian moms weren’t at the forefront. Now it’s a big controversy,” she said.
In a script WGBH provided to Current, most of the episode is devoted to the children showing Buster how to turn maple sap into syrup, feed calves at a dairy farm, and make cookies. At one point, 11-year-old Emma points to a pair of women in a family photo and identifies them as her mom and her stepmom. Buster replies, “Boy, that’s a lot of moms.” Emma next shows Buster a picture of her friend Lily and says, “Tracy and Gina are her two moms.” The episode ends with the two families singing around the bonfire.
Last week Harris and her partner, Gina d’Ambrosio, told their children, ages 7, 9 and 13, that PBS wouldn’t air the episode, she told Current.
She added, “But some really brave and strong people in Boston believe it should be shown and they’re standing behind this, and that PBS stations in Vermont are going to be brave and strong. So there is some intolerance but really brave, really strong people. And Lily said, ‘That’s what Martin Luther King did.'”