Diversity dance

TV: Some TV stations just fake the steps, but MPT is making the right moves as a battle brews over gay and lesbian issues.

May 26, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Television stations like to tell us in their promotional messages how committed they are to diversity. But, when it comes time to walk the walk and air programs that might be controversial because of the diversity they celebrate, many stations run for cover.

Maryland Public Television is backing up its campaign to promote diversity this television season with a couple of productions dealing with gay and lesbian issues, and our local PBS outlet deserves some recognition. Not that MPT has made a major commitment to gay and lesbian programming by any stretch of the imagination. But, given the sorry state and history of gay-themed programming on public television, MPT's effort is still noteworthy.

Tonight at 10: 30, MPT offers its monthly installment of "In The Life," a public television newsmagazine that chronicles the history and contemporary experience of the gay and lesbian community. For a long time, "In The Life," one of the most responsible and public-service-minded newsmagazines on television, couldn't find public television stations to air it because of its subject matter. And most of those that did carry the show aired it in the early morning or late night hours when viewership was low.

But MPT has been carrying "In The Life" for more than a year and was one of the first stations to air it in prime time. Tonight's episode is another solid effort that includes a segment on airlines that court gay customers and those that discriminate against them. You won't see major airlines -- with all the advertising dollars they spend on television -- exposed this way anywhere on commercial television.

You will also never see anything on commercial television like "It's Elementary," a PBS documentary about the discussion of gay and lesbian issues in elementary and middle schools, which is scheduled on MPT June 7 at 9 p.m. In fact, you won't even see it on many PBS stations. As of yesterday, only 89 stations had agreed to carry it, with 80 or so not airing the show.

The goal of "It's Elementary" is to show what happens when gay and lesbian issues are discussed by teachers with students in age-appropriate ways in first through eighth grade classrooms. What happens in the film is ignorance is replaced with fact, stereotype with information, and hate with a more tolerant attitude. You can see students becoming more comfortable with something that left them confused and scared.

There's nothing shocking or sensationalistic about the award-winning film, which is directed and produced by Baltimore native and Oscar-winner Debra Chasnoff for public television station KQED in San Francisco. The camera lets us eavesdrop on what amounts to focus groups of elementary and middle school pupils sharing their thoughts about what it means to be gay and lesbian. There are some wonderful insights, such as how much misinformation they get from other TV sources such as daytime talk shows.

Even though it has not aired yet, "It's Elementary" has come under tremendous fire from a number of conservative groups, which is what's keeping it off some stations. The Coral Ridge Ministries of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has a direct mail campaign that includes fliers with the headline: "How many children will tune into `Sesame Street' and instead receive a lesson in homosexuality?"

The letter mailed by the organization is far more sensationalistic than the show laced with such pleas as, "God help us not to turn America's children over to homosexual propaganda!"

Donald E. Wildmon's American Family Association has also taken up the cause describing "It's Elementary" as "a pro-homosexuality bombshell that has been fired into our children's elementary schools."

Wildmon says the goals of "It's Elementary" are to:

1. Subvert our children's innocence.

2. Turn them from the beliefs and values we hold dear.

3. Indoctrinate them with false moral teachings.

The American Family Association has responded with its own video titled "Suffer the Children: Answering the Homosexual Agenda in Public Schools," which it describes as a response to "It's Elementary." Wildmon's film opens with grade school children running through a doorway in slow motion as ominous music plays. Suddenly, the students turn to black-and-white outline forms as they might look on film negatives. The suggestion is that something terrible has just happened to them.

Then we see Ed Vitagliano, director of research for the organization, standing on a playground surrounded by children.

"The battle in this country between those holding to traditional morality and those espousing hedonism has reached a fever pitch manifested in no clearer terms than the ideological conflict over homosexuality," he says.

Vitagliano then goes after "It's Elementary," which he describes as "force-feeding children pro-gay grist."

The battle over this film has only just begun.

Mark your calendars for June 7. This is an important film. Nothing a culture does is more important than passing on its values one generation to the next, because without a successful handoff the culture cannot survive. That's the battle behind the battle over "It's Elementary." That's the biggest battle in the culture wars.

And in the center of that fray is exactly where public television ought to be but all too often isn't.

Today's top shows

Here are last week's top TV shows, according to A.C. Nielsen Co. figues:


1 ER NBC 22.1

2 Frasier NBC 18.1

3 Friends NBC 17.0

4 Tuesday Movie:

Joan of Arc

Part 2 of 2 CBS 12.9

5 Touched by

an Angel CBS 12.6

6 Sunday Movie:

Michael Landon,

Father I Knew CBS 12.4

7 Premiere:

Cleopatra Part I ABC 11.9

8 60 Minutes CBS 11.7

9 Home Improvement ABC 11.6

10 Ally McBeal Fox 11.3

10 (tie) Law & Order NBC 11.3

The rating is the percentage of homes equipped with a TV in use.

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