GOP targets HIV Muppet

New character to educate on virus, 'Sesame' VP sez

WASHINGTON — Capitol Hill lawmakers rushed over the weekend to put Public Broadcasting System on notice that it better think twice before bringing to America a new, HIV-infected Muppet developed for audiences in AIDS-ravaged South Africa.

In a letter dispatched to PBS prexy Pat Mitchell, Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La) and the five other Republicans leading the influential House Commerce Committee raised several concerns about the Muppet. They also reminded that the panel has budgetary oversight of the Corp. for Public Broadcasting, which in turn provides funds to PBS.

“We look forward to working with you to ensure that only age and culturally appropriate programs air on PBS, which is a mainstay that millions of parents have come to rely upon over the past 35 years,” wrote the solons.

Sesame Workshop veep Joel Schneider announced the new Muppet last week at the 14th Intl. AIDS Conference in Barcelona. The Muppet doesn’t have a name yet, or a final design, but is expected to hit the airwaves in September.

Schneider told Daily Variety in a phone interview from Barcelona that there are no specific plans to introduce the Muppet in the U.S. He said the idea behind the new character is to provide accurate education about the HIV virus and AIDS.

The HIV virus is raging at epidemic proportions in South Africa, where it’s estimated that one in nine people are infected.

In South Africa, the Muppet will appear on “Takalani Sesame,” Schneider said.

Better programming vehicle?

PBS referred all questions regarding the Muppet to Sesame Workshop. PBS could not be reached for comment over the weekend regarding the Capitol Hill letter.

The lawmakers said that by Sesame Workshop’s calculation, the average age of children watching “Sesame Street” in the U.S. is 2- to 4-years old.

“As such, while it is important to teach children in an age-appropriate manner about compassion for those who contract certain diseases, we would like to inquire as to whether there is other PBS programming, aimed at an older age group, which may be more suitable for such sensitive messages,” the solons wrote in the letter, which was sent Friday evening.

Capitol Hill pols, and especially Republicans, have long looked for reasons to cut back on funding for public broadcasting.

Pointed questions

Tauzin, chair of the commerce committee, gave Mitchell until Friday to answer several questions, including the amount of money PBS dedicates to “Sesame Street” and any funds specifically earmarked for the new Muppet. Pols also want to know if there are any plans to introduce the Muppet in the U.S., and any role corporate underwriters might play in the decision-making process.

More generally, Mitchell has been asked to explain the process by which programming is reviewed in terms of being age-appropriate, and whether such review is ongoing.

Pols also want to know if Mitchell was aware of the HIV-infected Muppet when testifying last week before the House Subcommittee on Telecom & the Internet.

The other lawmakers signing the letter were Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Rep. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Rep. Charles “Chip” Pickering (R-Miss.), Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

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