The left wants PBS with spine

Pulling an episode of `Buster' decried

February 15, 2005|By Lynn Smith | Lynn Smith,LOS ANGELES TIMES

In December, PBS President Pat Mitchell predicted in a routine speech that 2005 would be a transformational year for public broadcasting. She couldn't have known that an animated rabbit would become an agent of change.

Yet Postcards From Buster, a gentle children's program that was to have shown a real-life Vermont family with lesbian mothers in one episode, has in some quarters emerged as a powerful symbol of what's wrong with PBS these days.

And for once, it's not the attacks from the right that rankle. Mitchell said she is particularly troubled by criticism from a range of left-leaning advocacy groups and media critics who've taken her to task for pulling the lesbian mothers episode.

"They are our natural allies and friends," Mitchell said from PBS headquarters in Alexandria, Va. "The sad thing is, the people who want to see public television get better resources are hardly helping by participating in this kind of debate."

The debate began with a salvo from the Department of Education objecting to the Buster episode. The secretary of education, Margaret Spellings, asked PBS to consider returning federal grant money if it aired the program. But Mitchell, concerned about how the episode would play with parents in local communities, said she had decided not to distribute it to member stations.

She stands by her Buster decision, which she said she made in consultation with various member stations. "We're not a network that sends out a program and says, `Live with it, New Orleans or Biloxi.'"

Mitchell said PBS has and will continue to cover gay issues in prime-time programming, saying that "children's programming has its own set of principles and standards."

But what the standards are will have to be worked out in a new era of extra scrutiny. The children's TV institution Sesame Street, for example, which gets funding from the same Ready to Learn grant that got Buster in trouble with the Department of Education, announced its 36th season Thursday. A news release described "parody segments including `Desperate Houseplants' and `Grouch Eye for the Nice Guy,'" playful references to ABC's prime-time soap Desperate Housewives or Bravo's Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.

"We look forward to having them on the air," Lea Sloan, vice president of media relations for PBS, said of the segments. Critics on the left want to see even more backbone than that. According to Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, PBS has been "so finely attuned now to the whims of the administration they didn't need to be told" to pull the Buster episode.

"It's a scary way to control content in a democracy," said children's programming advocate Peggy Charren, referring to the Department of Education's letter. Charren serves on the board of WGBH-TV, the PBS station that produced Buster.

"What's been lost is the idea that public broadcasting should operate independent of political pressure," said Peter D. Hart, a public opinion analyst and activism director of FAIR, a left-leaning media watchdog group.

It's this perception that Mitchell appears most eager to dispel. On Wednesday, PBS announced a new outside review panel that has been in the works since last spring and that will review editorial standards in nonfiction prime-time shows.

Still, some suspect that PBS' soul-searching is more motivated by financial concerns and Beltway politics than by a quest for quality programming. Most pressing is a multibillion-dollar trust fund proposal to Congress that public broadcasters hope will help them finance the fast-approaching era of universally mandated digital television.

"We're standing on the edge of a chasm," said John Lawson, CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations, a trade organization for PBS member stations. "We are leaving what we have been and staring at a very different digital future. No one knows what that future is. We are trying to put the pieces of a strategy together that we believe will lead to the rebirth of public television in the U.S."

A government mandate to turn off analog broadcasts and replace them with channel-expanding digital may come as early as next year. PBS leads other stations in obtaining digital access through cable after a recent deal that ensured digital cable carriage both before and after the transition.

But while the deal benefits PBS stations, it won't matter much to viewers if PBS can't keep its signature dramas and documentaries from being replaced by antiques shows and Yanni specials, Chester said: "It's like they have a big, fancy car with no gas."

PBS is facing other financial challenges. In its new budget, the Bush administration has effectively proposed a 25 percent cut to public broadcasting entities.

But Lawson said public broadcasters are not intimidated by government pressure even as they continue to seek funding for new programming.

"We had to have guaranteed cable coverage. We've got to get on satellite, which is next, and we've got to find new funding streams, and new partnerships to create the new generation of content to leverage the infrastructure," Lawson said.

"Public television will survive and continue to secure federal resources as long as we have station boards and citizens willing to express to their members of Congress that they support public television."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.