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Mitchell probes Buster’s detour into controversy

Episode dropped by PBS airing in half the country

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.

Buster wearing backpack and an anxious expressionThough 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, c.o.o. 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 Department starts the process of deciding who will receive Ready to Learn funding, now managed by PBS, for the next five years (earlier article).
Mitchell has asked PBS executives to examine the Buster imbroglio and report to her by Feb. 18, she told Current in an extended interview.

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 Buster’s 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 by 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 viewed 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 dad.

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. Education 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 shows that are achieving the goals that are intended for them.”

Web page posted Feb. 17, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee


Gay-related topics make for some of the hottest controversies that pubcasters handle.


Mitchell talks with Current about the Buster conflict, PBS's plans for digital services, and issues in its relationship with pubTV stations.

In a commentary, WNED programmer Ron Santora says catering to anti-gay prejudice marginalizes viewers and families who are gay.


In a Houston Chronicle interview, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings positions herself as an opponent of federal intervention in curriculum about homosexuality, evolution and other topics."I'm not going to sit up here in Washington, D.C., and try to dictate that," she said.

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