WASHINGTON – The network that's home to the popular Rugrats and Sponge Bob cartoons is planning a news special that engages children in a discussion over gay parenting and discrimination against homosexuals.
And some conservative groups are steaming from the ears about it.
The Nickelodeon cable television network, a subsidiary of MTV, has confirmed it will air a special episode of the new Nick News, to be broadcast in its usual Sunday night timeslot on a soon-to-be-announced date. It joins the ranks of the network's Bill Nye, The Science Guy and Blues Clues educational programming for kids.
Nick News is produced by New York-based Lucky Duck Productions, which is run by veteran newswoman Linda Ellerbee, who also hosts the show. Ellerbee, who has won awards for her work on previous Nick News work, has explored a number of provocative topics for her show, including HIV/AIDS and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
But this show goes too far, according to Andrea Lafferty, executive director of the Traditional Values Coalition. Lafferty began sending out petitions against the program and encouraging parents to complain to the network after her group was contacted six weeks ago by Nickelodeon to provide them with a conservative family for the show.
When she heard the program would concentrate on gay parenting, asking kids how they felt about homes with "two mommies" and anti-discrimination laws, "we declined," said Lafferty.
"Nick bills itself as the network parents can sit their kids down in front of and walk away," Lafferty said. "Homosexual marriage, gay parents, anti-discrimination laws — these are not pervasive issues for most 8- to 13-year-olds. This is homosexual propaganda."
Lafferty said TVC will move to pressure sponsors if the show is broadcast.
But Nickledodeon spokesman David Bittler said there's the show is not about sexuality, but offers a chance for children to talk about different family structures, including gay and straight parenting. They will also deal with issues of "tolerance and diversity" in respect to the differences among families, he said.
"I assure you that all sides of the issue will be presented. There will be segments from all sides and a segment of kids explaining what their feelings are about these issues. Nothing explicit. It will be an age-appropriate show," Bittler said.
He confirmed that talk show host and recently self-outed lesbian mom Rosie O’Donnell will be involved in the special. Members of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Gay and Lesbian Education Network (GLSEN) confirm that they have been involved in the production as well.
"To have a program where kids talk about their family structure is OK," said Cathy Renna, news media director for GLAAD. "If the TVC thinks that kids aren't talking about these things in elementary school, they need a big dose of reality," she added.
Lafferty said this is just what groups like GLAAD and GLSEN, which has been criticized for its work on developing teaching guides dealing with sexuality and alternative lifestyles, want: a place in which to put homosexuality front and center in young children's minds.
"Their purpose in life is to promote homosexual life in a positive light in the media," she said. "That's not what parents want. We know they've gotten over 200,000 letters from parents who are outraged about this."
Nickelodeon would not confirm whether the special would be converted into a classroom lesson plan like Ellerbee's other Nick News projects, but Bittler said that option was on the table.
Most recently, Ellerbee tackled the issue of the war on terror, including a segment called "Why Do They Hate Us?" which has been incorporated into a lesson plan for elementary school teachers. Instructors are encouraged to play a video, then ask the children "to look for clues as to why Americans are hated in certain areas of the world."
Ellerbee's office did not return repeated calls for comment.
"She has a very good track record for doing good, solid news programming for kids," said Jane Hall, an American University professor and Fox News Watch contributor.
"I can understand why the conservatives may be concerned, but as a parent, I know there are children in the elementary schools today who have same-sex parents and I'd like to hear what they have to say about it. I think this could be a good thing."
Pro-gay family groups say there are anywhere from 6 million to 10 million children living in such circumstances, according to American Bar Association numbers.
The numbers, however, are slippery. The U.S. Census does not calculate the number of gay and lesbian households and the children who live with them. The 2000 Census did find that male households with male unmarried partners totaled 301,000 in 2000 and female households with female unmarried partners numbered 293,365.
Robert Knight, director of Culture and Family Institute, said he knows of one conservative family that has participated in the program and hopes their view is expressed fairly. But he doesn't believe children need to learn about gay and homosexual lifestyles to learn respect and tolerance for other people.
"You can teach diversity without trampling on people's moral beliefs the way these programs do, when children are told that homosexuality is normal and healthy and anyone who says otherwise is a hate-filled bigot."