NEAL CONAN, host:
The new secretary of Education and a cartoon rabbit are at the center of a controversy over censorship. Did a letter from Secretary Margaret Spellings prompt PBS to pull a children's program that referred indirectly to homosexuality? The bunny in question is an eight-year-old named Buster. He's the star of the new PBS children's show "Postcards from Buster," a blend of animation and live action. As Buster flies around the country with his pilot father, he records videos of what he sees and sends them back to his friends.
In this clip, for example, Buster visits a farm in Oregon, where he expects to encounter a giant who grows pumpkins.
(Soundbite of "Postcards from Buster")
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Buster) Isn't someone missing? Where's the giant vegetable grower?
Unidentified Actor #2: My son Scotty? He's right up there?
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Buster) Yaahh!
Unidentified Actor #3: (As Scotty) Hey, Buster.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Buster) You're not a giant.
Unidentified Actor #3: (As Scotty) I'm not a giant, but I grow giant pumpkins.
Unidentified Actor #1: (As Buster) Giant pumpkins?
Unidentified Actor #3: (As Scotty) Come on. Let's see.
Unidentified Actor #2: Have fun, Buster.
CONAN: Buster's current troubles result from a visit to Vermont. The friends he visits there happen to have two moms. The show is almost all about mud season and maple sugaring and life on a farm. The "Sugartime!" episode, as it's called, has yet to air, and while PBS says it will not distribute this particular episode, some PBS stations will broadcast it, including WGBH in Boston, where the program originates. Joining us to tell us more is Ben Feller, national education reporter for the Associated Press, and he joins us from his office here in Washington.
Thanks very much for being with us.
Mr. BEN FELLER (AP National Education Reporter): Sure. Good afternoon.
CONAN: Now this letter that the Education secretary, Margaret Spellings, sent over to PBS--what did it say?
Mr. FELLER: Well, the secretary--who, by the way, just began her job this week--sent a letter yesterday to the president of PBS expressing concern about this show. This is intended to be part of the Ready-To-Learn program, which uses television programs to help young kids get ready for school. What the problem was, in the eyes of the secretary, was that it promoted a lifestyle, as she put it, that some parents would have a problem with.
CONAN: And we're going to speak with a PBS official in just a minute, but tell us what action PBS has taken in light of this letter.
Mr. FELLER: Sure. Well, there are actually two things that happened yesterday. The letter came from the secretary to PBS saying, If you're going to air this show - because it has two couples that are lesbians, it has a gay theme to it, if you will, according to the department - we don't want any part of this. PBS, meanwhile, announced yesterday that they're not distributing the show to any of their stations. They insist that that action had nothing to do with the department's letter but, rather, concerns among leadership at PBS and their member stations who just felt that if parents want to raise this issue with their kids, they should do it on their own time, and that this show was inappropriate.
CONAN: Now the "Postcards from Buster" series does get funding from the Department of Education. Tell us a little bit about that relationship.
Mr. FELLER: Sure. Again, the Ready-To-Learn program is something that Congress approved and that the department administers, and the goal is to use television programming to help young kids learn and get ready for school. Part of that is this "Postcards from Buster" series, which features the animated bunny going to different places and learning about different regions and talking to people from different cultural and social backgrounds.
So the department, in effect, funds this show. It doesn't give it all of its money, but it does give it a good bit. Over the last five years, the department has funded almost $100 million to Ready-To-Learn, and that's why the department has some say over the content here.
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Now in the past week, the Department of Education also said it's considering making changes to the way it funds the Ready-To-Learn grants.
Mr. FELLER: Right. Yeah. That's also something that's in the mix here. The department is looking at changing and breaking up the programming. The way the funding goes to the programming, they have both production of the shows and outreach to local communities, so that's yet another thing in the mix here. Again, PBS is saying that its decision about this episode was not driven by the money it gets, was not driven by pressure from the department. It so happens that their decision to pull back did come on the same day that the department sent its letter of concern, but they're saying they're two different things and they made their decision independently.
CONAN: Now PBS - again, going back to the funding issue - said it will begin a review of the way it makes its editorial decisions.
Mr. FELLER: That's right. I mean, again, what you have here is an episode of this character going into Vermont. He's on a farm, he's learning about maple sugaring, and in the background, if you will, the parents in this episode are lesbians. There are two same-sex couples. PBS is saying, you know, that is not the focus of the show, but they now realize that a lot of people are concerned about that, and so they're pulling it. So that's really what the issue is here. The PBS president has said, in light of this controversy, she wants a new review of how PBS decides what it's going to air and when it's going to air it. They already do that kind of editorial review, but the president, in light of this, is calling for a new one. So, really, this has brought a lot of concern both inside and outside the Education Department.
CONAN: Ben Feller, national education reporter for the Associated Press, stay with us just a minute.
We're talking about a controversy involving the secretary of Education and PBS. We'll talk with a PBS official in just a moment. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And joining us now is John Wilson, senior vice president for programming at PBS. He joins us from their headquarters in Alexandria, Virginia.
And it's good of you to join us.
Mr. JOHN WILSON (Senior Vice President for Programming, PBS): Thank you.
CONAN: So we've heard some, but I'd like to hear from you: Why has PBS decided not to air the "Sugartime!" episode?
Mr. WILSON: Well, I think it's been accurately reported that our concern grew as we saw that the controversy and the focus around what was initially seen as a backdrop to the program, the family that Buster was going to visit - that that backdrop, if you will, continued to come into the foreground. And that's just not what the episode was about. The episode wasn't about different family types or lifestyles. The episode was about Buster going to visit this part of America and exploring sort of the regional color and flavor and tastes of the area, which - a big part of the episode is spent gathering maple sap...
CONAN: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
Mr. WILSON: ...to make maple syrup from. So it became really clear to us that that was being sort of obscured and overshadowed by this unintended controversy that was really just sort of a family backdrop.
CONAN: And it should be pointed out that in various other episodes, Buster goes and meets other kinds of families, in the way that a lot of PBS children's programs are very inclusive - a family of evangelicals and a Muslim family.
Mr. WILSON: That's right. And that is what the series is about, is exploring the diversity of the country in terms of the people who are here, and also what their sort of - how they've made America their own. And there have been some wonderful moments. I don't know if you've seen much of the series, but I thought the episode where Buster visits Chicago and meets a Muslim family and really learns about who they are and what they are, and demystification of what right now in today's current climate, you know, is an uncertain subject. I think it was a great thing for Buster to have done.
CONAN: Yeah. In the letter - did the letter from the secretary of Education have anything to do with this?
Mr. WILSON: Well, it did not, because we didn't receive it until a couple hours after we had made our decision and made that announcement to our stations.
CONAN: Some people will say that you've made this program and you - you know, the people meeting the Muslim family, and for good reason. But some Americans might not like to have their children introduced to Islam in that way, either. They might prefer to do that. Why does the problem come when it's a homosexual couple?
Mr. WILSON: Well, I think what the point of this is, is that the show did not set out to make this the central issue, and I think because of that, it did not address it in sort of a holistic, comprehensive way. So in some respects, it was both too little and too much. It raised an issue when then the show did not go on to address fully, and so to that end, it was really just creating confusion and controversy where it didn't belong.
CONAN: WGBH, where the program originates, has decided to go ahead and air it. We believe, they said in a statement, this from Henry Becton, the president at WGBH - We believe, as do our advisers, that the program is appropriate for our audience and fits the series' mission to introduce children to the rich and varied cultures that make up the United States, including kids living in a wide range of family structures.
Mr. WILSON: Right. That...
CONAN: PBS does not?
Mr. WILSON: Well, and I think that that gets at one of the essential sort of differentiators about public broadcasting. In public broadcasting, the local station is completely autonomous and can make those kinds of decisions. And in this case, since WGBH made the program, they have the ability to air the program for themselves. So that's a call that they get to make. I think the program did achieve the goals set out for the series itself in terms of advancing literacy and exploring the country and so forth. Our concern was that this particular issue, which was really just meant to be a family, the setting of which was a backdrop to the main story, the front story, was clearly just becoming overwhelming to that main story, and therefore was going to be lost in the mix. And so we felt that it was better not to distribute this episode of the series, and instead, what we're going to do is ask WGBH to create another episode for us so that we can fulfill the requirements of delivering a series to our stations.
CONAN: John Wilson, thank you very much.
Mr. WILSON: You're welcome.
CONAN: John Wilson, senior vice president for programming at PBS, joined us from his office in Alexandria, Virginia.
Ben Feller, you're still with us. We have just a few seconds left, but as you pointed out, this is Margaret Spellings' first week on the job. Can we expect more controversy?
Mr. FELLER: Well, the department certainly hopes not. I mean, you have to keep in mind, from the department's point of view, they're doing what they think is right. The secretary in her letter said, `This is the intent of Congress.' She laid out that certain material and content ought to follow certain standards, and she didn't think that this lived up to it. And obviously, the subject matter itself touches onto a broader public debate about homosexuality and to what degree the government ought to be involved in it. So that's always going to touch off some controversy. But she also inherits some from her predecessor, Rod Paige, in terms of a story that unfolded over the last few months about a commentator who was hired to promote No Child Left Behind. So that's happening in the news right now. Whether there'll be more, we'll have to see. It's her first week, but it's part of coming with the job of running the Education Department.
CONAN: Ben Feller, thanks.
Mr. FELLER: Sure. Thank you.
CONAN: Ben Feller, national education reporter for the Associated Press, joined us from his office in Washington.
This is NPR News' TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.