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PBS's 'Buster' Gets An Education

By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, January 27, 2005; Page C01

PBS was surprised to receive a letter from new Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, warning the public TV network against airing an upcoming episode of the kids show "Postcards From Buster," because PBS had already informed her office it would not send the episode to its stations, programming co-chief John Wilson says.

"We made the decision . . . [Tuesday] afternoon, a couple of hours before we received the letter from the secretary of education," Wilson told The TV Column yesterday.


Buster meets an Indiana family, a visit that didn't offend the folks at Education. (Sarah Crosley -- WGBH/Cookie Jar Entertainment via AP)

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"It came at the end of many days, maybe even a few weeks, of looking at rough cuts of the program and deliberating."

Spellings, who has been charged with the difficult task of fixing the nation's troubled public education system, took time out on her second day on the job to fire off a letter to PBS CEO Pat Mitchell expressing "strong and very serious concerns" about the "Postcards From Buster" episode. Specifically that, in the episode, called "Sugartime!," the animated asthmatic little bunny visits Vermont and meets actual, real-live, not make-believe children there who have gay parents.

For those of you unfamiliar with the spinoff of the popular children's series "Arthur," which combines animation and live action, each week, 8-year-old animated Buster and his animated dad travel to another locale, where Buster, armed with his video camera, meets actual, non-animated people, who introduce him to the local scene -- clogging in Whitesburg, Ky.; rodeo barrel racing in Houston; monoskiing in Park City, Utah; doing the Arapaho Grass Dance at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. Additionally, Buster meets a family from a different cultural background.

In the episode that knotted Spellings's knickers, Buster goes to Vermont and meets children from two families, who show him how maple syrup and cheese are made.

At one of the homes, Buster is introduced to all of the children and to the two moms. One girl explains that one of the women is her "stepmom," whom she says she loves a lot.

One of the women asks the kids to get some maple syrup and some cheese for dinner, and to stop by the other home to borrow a big lasagna pan. In the other home, Buster is introduced to the whole family, including two more moms. Then the kids head off to get the ingredients, and Buster learns where syrup and cheese come from.

In her letter, Spellings reminded Mitchell that the show is being funded in part by the Education Department and that a principal focus of the law authorizing such "Ready-to-Learn" programming is "facilitating student academic achievement."

In the conference committee report for fiscal year 2005 appropriations, Spellings continues, Congress reiterated that the unique mission of Ready-to-Learn is: "to use the television medium to help prepare preschool age children for school. The television programs that must fulfill this mission are to be specifically designed for this purpose, with the highest attention to production quality and validity of research-based educational objectives, content and materials."

"You should also know," Spellings says, "that two years ago the Senate Appropriations Committee raised questions about the accountability of funds appropriated for Ready-To-Learn programs." A bit ominous, we think.

"We believe the 'Sugartime!' episode does not come within these purposes or within the intent of Congress and would undermine the overall objective of the Ready-To-Learn program -- to produce programming that reaches as many children and families as possible," Spellings wrote.

Why, you might wonder, given that preschoolers who watch the episode learn how maple syrup and cheese are made, not to mention useful English-language phrases (the series is also designed to help children for whom English is a second language).

Because, Spellings explained in her letter, "many parents would not want their young children exposed to the life-styles portrayed in this episode." She did not say how many is "many," or cite a source for that information.


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