Jan 31 2005

PBS Censors Postcards From Buster

Episode featuring lesbian moms deemed not 'appropriate'

PBS has pulled an episode of the children’s show Postcards From Buster that includes children with lesbian mothers. The episode was yanked the same day that PBS received a letter from new Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings condemning the episode and asking PBS to “strongly consider” returning the federal money that went toward its production.

In the episode, Buster, an animated rabbit, visits Vermont, where he learns how maple sugar is made and visits the home of real-life children who invite him in for dinner and introduce him to their “mom and Gillian.”

WGBH, the Boston PBS affiliate station that produced the program, still plans to air the pulled episode and make it available to other stations, but without PBS or Department of Education support (Washington Times, 1/27/05).

PBS chief operating officer Wayne Godwin and spokesperson Lea Sloan gave a variety of reasons for PBS‘s decision to censor the show; Godwin said the episode brought up an issue that was “best left for parents and children to address together at a time and manner of their own choosing,” while Sloan said it was “sensitive in today’s political climate” (Associated Press, 1/27/05). Godwin also pointed out that some children wouldn’t have a parent with them to “put it in context” (Washington Post, 1/27/05), but at the same time indicated that it was precisely the context that parents and media coverage gave the episode that created the problem:

The concern really was that there’s a point where background becomes foreground. No matter if the parents were intended to be background, with this specific item in this particular program they might simply be foreground because of press attention to it and parental attention to it” (New York Times, 1/27/05).

Godwin went on to claim the episode conflicted with PBS‘s purpose: “The presence of a couple headed by two mothers would not be appropriate curricular purpose that PBS should provide.”

It’s a disturbing view for the COO of PBS to hold, particularly since public television’s mandate as set forth in the 1967 Carnegie Commission Report is to “provide a voice for groups in the community that may otherwise be unheard,” to serve as “a forum for controversy and debate,” and to broadcast programs that “help us see America whole, in all its diversity.”

Indeed, it would seem that PBS‘s decision to drop the episode would more likely violate the terms of its Education Department grant than would the episode itself; the grant requires funded programs to:

appeal to all of America’s children by providing them with content and characters with which they can identify. 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. The series will avoid stereotypical images of all kinds and show modern multi-ethnic/lingual/cultural families and children.”

Previous families featured in Postcards episodes have included Mormons, Hmong and Pentecostal Christians. It’s hard to interpret PBS‘s selective reading of its own mandate in the censorship of Postcards as anything but political pandering in the face of government threats; Spellings’ letter included the blunt reminder that “two years ago the Senate Appropriations Committee raised questions about the accountability of funds appropriated for Ready-To-Learn programs” (Washington Post, 1/27/05). What’s more, according to a New York Times report (1/27/05), PBS officials– including PBS president Pat Mitchell– screened the Vermont episode and deemed it appropriate just a few days before pulling it.

Unfortunately, PBS‘s decision is hardly surprising, given its history of moving to the right under pressure from conservative critics. The network recently added two conservative public affairs programs to its lineup, apparently to “balance” the alleged liberal bias of NOW With Bill Moyers. At the time, Moyers had already announced his intended retirement, and since his departure the show has been cut back to half an hour (see FAIR Action Alert, 9/17/04).

And this wouldn’t be the first time PBS has backed down on gay and lesbian issues; in 1994, PBS refused to provide funding for a second year of its popular and critically acclaimed miniseries Tales of the City, which included gay characters. The show had prompted the American Family Association to call PBS the “Homosexual Pride Tax-Funded TV Network” and urge their followers to “shut down” PBS. Though PBS called the decision financial, Tales was actually a remarkably profitable series (Extra!, 7-8/94).

Just two years earlier, when New York City PBS affiliate WNET began producing In the Life, television’s first nationwide gay-oriented show, conservatives had vigorously attacked public television from the Senate floor. Former Republican Sen. Bob Dole railed, “It seems that the broadcasting apologists are hiding behind Big Bird, Mr. Rogers and Masterpiece Theatre, laying down their quality smokescreen while they shovel out funding for gay and lesbian shows” (Village Voice, 6/30/92; see also Extra!, 6/93). In the face of such threats and criticism, PBS refused to distribute the show; over 10 years later, the program still receives no financial or distribution support from PBS.

ACTION: Please contact PBS and ask them to support programming according to their mandate, not political pressures.

CONTACT: PBS Pat Mitchell, President and CEO Phone: (703) 739-5000 pmitchell@pbs.org

Or use the PBS comment form: http://www.pbs.org/aboutsite/aboutsite_emailform.html

You might also want to contact your local PBS affiliate to encourage them to air the censored episode of Postcards From Buster: http://www.pbs.org/stationfinder/index.html

As always, please remember that your comments have more impact if you maintain a polite tone. Please cc fair@fair.org with your correspondence.