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Bert and Ernie Won't Get HIV+ Buddy in U.S.

The news that an HIV-positive Muppet is headed for Sesame Street has been greatly exaggerated.

While it is true that the new character is being developed for a version of the PBS kids' show produced in South Africa, the introduction of a similar character on the original U.S. show was never under consideration, despite reports to the contrary, officials say.

"I think there was a big mistake made," said Robert Knezevic, vice president of international co-productions for New York-based Sesame Workshop, producer of Sesame Street.

"Categorically, there are no plans to put this Muppet on the American Sesame Street," Knezevic told The Post yesterday.

Knezevic was referring to the newspaper stories from late last week that said the HIV-infected Muppet was being mulled for U.S. television.

The stories - most notably one in last Friday's Washington Post - reported on the announcement that the character was being designed for "Takalani Sesame," the name of Sesame Street in South Africa, where 10 percent of the population is said to be infected with HIV.

The announcement by Sesame Workshop Vice President Joel Schneider was made at the 14th International AIDS Conference in Barcelona, Spain.

Accounts vary on whether Schneider actually said the HIV-infected kids' show character may eventually be introduced in the U.S.

Accurate or not, the story that the producers of Sesame Street were developing a kid-friendly character who was also HIV-positive was ready-made for the high-decibel TV and radio talk shows, which held numerous debates on the issue without regard to whether it was actually true. You could see the discussions on The O'Reilly Factor.

It even alarmed lawmakers in Washington, including members of the House Commerce Committee who notified PBS President Pat Mitchell that federal funding of the public-broadcasting network might be affected if the character is introduced in the U.S.

But the legislators apparently had little cause for alarm. Says Knezevic, "This was not intended for U.S. audiences. I think this story kind of ran away."