Despite denunciation, `Buster' episode to air

Lesbians: The education secretary condemned it, but the PBS show for preschoolers will run in some cities.

February 01, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Defying criticism from the secretary of education and their own network, several large PBS affiliates say they will air an episode of the children's show Postcards From Buster that includes a visit to a home with lesbian parents.

Buster the cartoon rabbit is not backing down.

Postcards From Buster, aimed at preschoolers, was pulled from the PBS schedule last week after Margaret Spellings, the new secretary of the Department of Education, denounced the use of federal funds for it. But WGBH, the powerful Boston public television station that makes the series, said yesterday that it will air the program tomorrow.

WGBH offered the episode to other PBS stations and, as of last night, 18 planned to air it, said Jeanne Hopkins, a vice president at WGBH. They include some of the largest stations in the 349-member Public Broadcasting System - such as New York's WNET and KQED in San Francisco.

Maryland Public Television said it will not air the program tomorrow but might show it later. "We really have delineated children's television as a safe harbor for families," said MPT spokesman Larry Hoffman. "But we also realize we have a commitment to tolerance. It's a tough decision." Washington's WETA has decided not to air the episode, Hopkins said.

"I am so proud of WGBH for airing this show and making it available so that other stations can now order it," said Peggy Charren, a WGBH board member and pioneer in children's TV. "Unlike most of the people who are talking about this episode, I have actually seen it, and it is such a sweet, mild and wonderful program."

But Spellings, who has also seen the episode, disagreed. "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode," Spellings wrote to PBS President Pat Mitchell. "Congress' and the Department's purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children."

Spellings urged Mitchell to "strongly consider refunding" federal funds used for the episode. Most of the $5 million financing for Buster came from the federal government.

Buster, a spinoff of Arthur, the most popular kids' show on TV, is part animated, part live action. Buster is an 8-year-old asthmatic rabbit and "child" of divorce who travels the country with his father, a pilot, sending video postcards back home.

The "postcards" feature real-life children introducing Buster to their culture. Buster has showcased rodeo barrel racing in Texas, Arapaho grass dancing at a reservation in Wyoming and clog dancing in Kentucky.

The controversial segment - "Sugartime!" - takes Buster to Vermont where children show him how maple syrup and cheese are made. The focus is on the children except when Buster is invited to dinner by two families headed by lesbian mothers.

"It's about the children, not the parents," Charren said. "What you learn about is maple syrup - how its made - and that cheese comes from cows."

PBS disagreed. "The family structure of the real-life families in this episode is a backdrop to the story," said vice president Lea Sloan in a statement. "The fact that the family structure element has suddenly come to the foreground, in the current hotly charged ideological climate, obscures the educational role of the episode."

Buster is only the latest cartoon character roped into the culture wars. A "We Are Family" video that promotes multiculturalism and includes an appearance by SpongeBob SquarePants, the cartoon sponge, was criticized last month by conservative leader James Dobson for promoting the acceptance of homosexuality. The makers of the video, to be distributed to elementary schools, have said nothing in it refers to sexual identity.

Later this month, a character on The Simpsons will be married in a same-sex ceremony.

The Department of Education grant that funds Buster specifies: "Diversity will be incorporated into the fabric of the series to help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society."

Under a five-year contract with PBS, the Education Department has paid about $100 million for TV programming targeting preschoolers. In 2005 - the last year of the contract - the federal payment to PBS amounts to about $22.9 million.

"The very idea of this series was to show diversity," said Dr. Michael Brody, a Washington-based child psychiatrist who is chairman of the TV and media committee of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry.

"The idea of this program wasn't to go against the religious right, or to make the liberal left feel good," Brody said. "The idea was to help out children by presenting the diversity of families and to make kids who weren't in `traditional' families not feel so different."

Staff writer Stephen Kiehl contributed to this article.

The issue

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings knocks Postcards From Buster for visiting a home with lesbian parents. PBS pulls the episode but several affiliates will air it anyway.

Under a five-year contract with PBS, which ends after 2005, the Education Department has paid about $100 million for TV programming for preschoolers.

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