WASHINGTON – The nation's new education secretary denounced PBS (search) on Tuesday for spending public money on a cartoon with lesbian characters, saying many parents would not want children exposed to such lifestyles.
The not-yet-aired episode of "Postcards From Buster (search)" shows the title character, an animated bunny named Buster, on a trip to Vermont — a state known for recognizing same-sex civil unions. The episode features two lesbian couples, although the focus is on farm life and maple sugaring.
A PBS spokesman said late Tuesday that the nonprofit network has decided not to distribute the episode, called "Sugartime!," to its 349 stations. She said the Education Department's objections were not a factor in that decision.
"Ultimately, our decision was based on the fact that we recognize this is a sensitive issue, and we wanted to make sure that parents had an opportunity to introduce this subject to their children in their own time," said Lea Sloan (search), vice president of media relations at PBS.
However, the Boston public television station that produces the show, WGBH, does plan to make the "Sugartime!" episode available to other stations. WGBH also plans to air the episode on March 23, Sloan said.
PBS gets money for the "Postcards from Buster" series through the federal Ready-To-Learn program, one aimed at helping young children learn through television.
Education Secretary Margaret Spellings (search) said the "Sugartime!" episode does not fulfill the intent Congress had in mind for programming. By law, she said, any funded shows must give top attention to "research-based educational objectives, content and materials."
"Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in the episode," Spellings wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to Pat Mitchell, president and chief executive officer of PBS.
"Congress' and the Department's purpose in funding this programming certainly was not to introduce this kind of subject matter to children, particularly through the powerful and intimate medium of television."
She asked PBS to consider refunding the money it spent on the episode.
With her letter, Spellings has made criticism of the publicly funded program's depiction of the gay lifestyle one of her first acts as secretary. She began on Monday, replacing Rod Paige as President Bush's education chief.
Spellings issued three requests to PBS.
She asked that her department's seal or any statement linking the department to the show be removed. She asked PBS to notify its member stations of the nature of show so they could review it before airing it. And she asked for the refund "in the interest of avoiding embroiling the Ready-To-Learn program in a controversy that will only hurt" it.
In closing, she warned: "You can be assured that in the future the department will be more clear as to its expectations for any future programming that it funds."
The department has awarded nearly $100 million to PBS through the program over the last five years in a contract that expires in September, said department spokesman Susan Aspey. That money went to the production of "Postcards From Buster," and another animated children's show, and to promotion of those shows in local communities, she said.
The show about Buster also gets funding from other sources.
In the show, Buster carries a digital video camera and explores regions, activities and people of different backgrounds and religions.
On the episode in question, "The fact that there is a family structure that is objectionable to the Department of Education is not at all the focus of the show, nor is it addressed in the show," said Sloan of PBS.
But she also said: "The department's concerns align very closely with PBS' concerns, and for that reason, it was decided that PBS will not be providing the episode." Stations will receive a new episode, she said.