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PBS's 'Buster' Gets An Education

Congress's point in funding this programming "certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children," she added.

Au contraire, says WGBH, which produces "Postcards." The Boston public TV station says it will air the episode and has offered it to any station willing to defy the Education Department, which, in fairness, did shovel out major bucks for this series and, therefore, understandably feels it has the right to get in its two conservative cents' worth.


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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According to Brigid Sullivan, WGBH's vice president of children's programming, the RFP -- that's government-speak for request for proposals -- on the show said Ready-to-Learn was looking for a program that would "appeal to all of America's children by providing them with content and or 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."

Except, it would seem, children who have two mothers.

"We have produced 40 episodes," Sullivan said. "We have tried to reach across as many cultures, as many religions, as many family structures as we can. We gave it our best-faith effort. We have received hate mail for doing [an episode] about a Muslim girl. We've also received mail from Muslims saying thank you."

Buster, Sullivan said, has visited "Mormons in Utah, the Hmong in Wisconsin, the Gullah culture in South Carolina, Orthodox Jewish families, a Pentecostal Christian family -- we are trying to do a broad reach and we are trying to do it without judgment."

According to Sullivan, the "Buster" brouhaha started in December when, during a routine meeting of representatives from WGBH, PBS and the Education Department to discuss upcoming episodes, a WGBH rep mentioned that there might be some "buzz" on "Sugartime!" PBS insists that although it made its decision not to distribute the episode on the very same day that the newly appointed Spellings decided to fire off her letter, the decision had nothing to do with the kerfuffle brewing at Education over the episode.

Which, we've said before in similar situations, sounds great if you were born yesterday; otherwise, not so much.

"Ultimately we came to the conclusion that what was meant to be the background or backdrop of two families that happened to be headed by two mothers continued to find its way into the foreground," Wilson said.

"It's too sensitive to raise in a children's program," he added. "We know we have a number of kids . . . who don't have a parent or caregiver in with them watching to put it in context. At the end of the day what was meant to be a sort of background context of who this family is and who the parents are, overshadowed what the episode was really about, which was going to this part of America and learning about things that are uniquely Vermont.

"Yesterday afternoon we literally decided that it was an issue best left for parents and children to address together at a time and manner of their own choosing."

We asked all parties involved what they would say to the children who were filmed for this episode, and who expected to be seen on national TV and are now being told by the federal government that their families are not fit for other children to see on national TV -- at least not on any show that has received federal funding.

"That's a difficult question," Sullivan responded. "I guess I'd have to say from the producers' standing . . . it was our intention to include, not to exclude, anyone who is part of our society, and that for children to see a reflection of themselves on TV is an important part of their development."

"I've been thinking about that today," Wilson said. "Honestly, I feel for these families because they're real people, not actors cast and paid to do this, and I do feel bad that through no fault of their own and ultimately no fault of the producers they have been put in a situation they never imagined themselves in. To that end, I'm sorry for that."

An Education Department spokeswoman responded in a statement: "The episode is inappropriate for preschoolers. We are funding an education program for preschoolers, and one would be hard-pressed to explain how this serves as educational material for preschoolers. It's up to parents to decide for their children, not the government in a taxpayer-funded video for preschoolers."

We asked her to clarify what it was the department felt should be left to parents. She explained: "To decide when they want their kids to know about the lifestyles depicted in the film."


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