Mitchell probes Buster’s detour into controversy

Print More

PBS has launched an internal review to find out why the gay mommies episode
of Postcards from Buster took so many people by surprise — especially
the show’s main funder, the U.S. Department of Education, and numerous aggravated conservatives.

Two weeks after new Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings blasted the
children’s program for depicting same-sex parental couples, Minnesota conservatives were urging the state legislature to slash aid to Twin Cities PTV for airing the “Sugartime!” episode.

Though PBS dropped the episode Jan. 25, mere hours before receiving Spellings’ searing letter, a quarter of public TV’s licensees — 46 of about 170 — have aired the show or plan to. Some aired it promptly and at the program’s usual hour. Others, like Oregon Public Broadcasting and Rocky Mountain PBS, scheduled evening broadcasts to let parents tape the program and show it to their kids if they choose. A few (including Vermont PTV, home network for the families featured in the segment) are waiting until March 23 because that date was published in their viewer’s guides.

By the reckoning of WGBH, which produces Buster and ordered the satellite
feed when PBS stepped aside, at least 51 percent of the nation’s households
will have a shot at seeing Buster, an animated rabbit, go maple sugaring.

Stations in Atlanta, Detroit and Washington, D.C., were the only ones in
the top 10 markets that nixed the episode. Dan Alpert, COO and station
manager of Detroit PTV, said executives considered the compromise nighttime airing
route but couldn’t figure out how to bring its audience to it. “It was very convoluted,” said Alpert. “The audience you want to reach is not going to be watching at night. So then you would have to promote the show during children’s hours. What are you going to say — Tune in for this banned episode’?” he asked.

In Denver, KBDI flew in one of the Vermont mothers featured in “Sugartime!” to
appear on a special 90-minute version of a regular call-in public affairs
show, Colorado Inside Out, that followed a 7 p.m. broadcast of the episode.
A child
psychologist, a communications professor who studies media depictions of
gay people and a Denver teachers’ association leader were also panelists.
WQLN in Erie, Pa., aired the episode at a public library to a packed house — followed
by a sometimes heated Q&A with station execs — for those who didn’t
want to wait until late March to see it on TV.

Back at Braddock Place, PBS President Pat Mitchell and aides were still
trying to parse how the issue blew up in their faces just as the Education
starts the process of deciding who will receive Ready to Learn funding, now
managed by PBS, for the next five years (earlier
Mitchell has asked PBS executives to examine the Buster imbroglio and report
to her by Feb. 18, she told Current in an extended

PBS and the department meanwhile tended their partnership in promoting
school readiness.

“They say in situations like this there’s an elephant in the room,” joked
Michael Petrilli, the department’s associate assistant deputy secretary,
told attendees Feb. 3 during a seminar for station RTL workers in Baltimore. “It
just so happens in this case that elephant is a bunny.”

“I respect the decisions that WGBH made and continue to see WGBH
as what they’ve always been—one of the best producers of children’s
television,” said Petrilli, whose office oversees RTL. “I also
respect the difficult decision that PBS made as well, and I want you to know
that our
relationship with PBS is as strong as ever, and our commitment to the Ready
to Learn program is as firm as ever.”

The event was planned 18 months ago to follow the department’s release
of its request for proposals for the next five-year RTL grants, instead of a
fight over program content, but dotting the i’s took longer than expected
and the feds now expect to publish the grant specs this week.

Disinvitation was “misunderstanding”

Despite any assurances Petrilli could make, some observers saw strains
in the PBS-Education partnership. A week before the Baltimore event, where
executive producer, Carol Greenwald, was to appear on a panel, department officials
disinvited her and then re-invited her after Broadcasting & Cable’s
website reported the snub.

“I was asked to step down from the panel and I was a little surprised and
that was that,” said Greenwald, who did not want to dwell on the incident. “On
Thursday [the first day of the conference] they invited me back to the panel
and said there had been a misunderstanding.”

Department Press Secretary Susan Aspey explained: “This has been blown
out of proportion. There was an internal staff miscommunication within the program
office, and as soon as senior leadership realized what had happened, Mike Petrilli
immediately apologized to Ms. Greenwald and asked her to rejoin the panel, which
she did.”

PBS has said it will ask WGBH to make a new episode to replace the one
that made Spellings ask for a partial grant refund and PBS refused to distribute,
but it
is still unclear who will pay for the new production. Hopkins told Current that an episode costs about $200,000, with just over 60 percent of that covered
RTL funding.

“Our assumption is that PBS will figure that out [where the money will
come from for the new episode]. It wouldn’t be WGBH,” she said. “We
think it’s not an expenditure on our part because we delivered a show.”

The payment issue “is all part of that formal detailed conversation that
hasn’t yet taken place,” said John Wilson, PBS programming co-chief.

WGBH also insists the civil-union couples pictured in the episode’s background
shouldn’t have caught PBS unawares last month. More than a year earlier,
in October 2003, PBS and Education officials attended a meeting with WGBH reps “where
a range of cultures and different types of families was discussed” for
the program’s first 40 episodes, “and there was talk of same-sex
families,” Hopkins said. That is what participants recall, though no
formal minutes were taken, she said.

Greenwald mentioned the same-sex parents to reporters at the July 2004
PBS press tour, WGBH said, and in September, the PBS programming department
a rough
cut of the live-action footage, according to PBS and WGBH.

The Education Department heard about the episode some weeks later and got
a rough cut from a producer, said Aspey. “One of the show’s producers happened
to mention the episode to one of the staff in the program office, and the producer
offered to send a tape of the show to us. That all happened in December, and
was the first we knew about the content of the episode.”

The dispute went public in a Boston Globe article Jan. 22, and PBS dropped
the show three days later, as the department was preparing Spellings’ rebuke
to PBS.

The parties disagree about how far Buster should go in promoting “awareness
and appreciation of the many cultures of America” while it works to “support
the language learning of children in the process of acquiring English”—the
purposes cited on the program’s website.

Greenwald said WGBH’s approved proposal for the series “gave a very
specific definition of culture that included family structure. . . . We were
very clear that we would portray a range of family structures and this family
structure fits right into that model.” Other Buster episodes featured
kids living with their grandparents or shuttling between a divorced mom and

PBS’s Wilson maintains that the episode was planned to explore Vermont
in mud season. “I think they did a terrific job in the other episodes but
. . . the sensitive issue of a household headed by two moms was not the point
of the episode and it didn’t explore it in any substantive way. We thought
it wasn’t going to work ultimately.”

PBS distanced itself from the program by an extra arm’s length, not only
cutting it from the schedule but also declining to transmit it as an optional
soft feed, as it often does with hot potatoes. Most stations asked PBS not to
put the choice on them, Mitchell said.

By not doing a soft feed, PBS “missed an opportunity to reinforce the message
that affiliates of PBS make independent decisions and that’s a strong point
for us that we’re a local part of our communities,” said Steven Usery,
v.p. of marketing and communications for Twin Cities PTV.

Spellings instead is positioning herself as a defender of local option, pledging
to stay out of school curricula, even when the topic is homosexuality or
evolution. “I’m
not going to sit up here in Washington, D.C., and try to dictate that,” she
said in a Houston Chronicle interview Feb. 9.

Twin Cities PTV’s local choice was to air the episode March 23. On Feb.
8, a group called Minnesota Family Council said in letters to state legislators
that “it is entirely appropriate to discontinue subsidizing TPT, because
of its deliberate effort to propagandize unsuspecting, impressionable young children.”

Debra Chasnoff, a filmmaker who found herself amid a similar firestorm
for her 1999 documentary, It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues
in School
which aired on most pubTV stations [story],
said she appreciated “the
pressure PBS executives must feel under this increasingly conservative administration,
but I think we all have to look ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘In
the long run, what role am I playing by not standing up to that pressure?’”

Chasnoff says there are many children growing up with gay parents.

“I feel enormous harm has been done by censoring one segment of our population
out of the picture,” said Chasnoff, director of the Respect for All Project,
which works to advance understanding of diversity among young people. “Saying
to parents who are gay and lesbian, ‘your family is not appropriate for
children to look at’ is a huge insult. . . . For kids growing up in family
structures that are different from the norm, it is incredibly affirming and validating
to see others like them.”

Whether Buster will have RTL aid for a second season of visits to such
diverse families, or even less diverse ones, is very much up in the air.
officials hinted at the Baltimore meeting that the new round of contracts
will be less
interested in serving kids who are learning English as a second language,
as Buster and another animated series, The Misadventures of Maya & Miguel, do.
The realignment was months in the planning, they said.

“We intend to bring the [RTL] program back to its roots to focus on
literacy and on reading,” Petrilli said at the Baltimore conference. “In
no way is this meant as a criticism to our two current shows, which are fantastic
that are achieving the goals that are intended for them.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *