HIV Muppet yanks solon’s chain

There’s a certain refrain making a comeback in Washington as Capitol Hill turns its attention to public broadcasting: Here we go again.

PBS and NPR have always been a favorite whipping post of Republican lawmakers, and the new millenium hasn’t changed that.

Led by top GOP player Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin, a chorus of conservative politicos are once again crooning that noncommerical public broadcasting is too liberal, too edge and — in a new complaint — too slick and suave for its own good.

And as long as outfits such as PBS or NPR receive federal funds, Congress has every right to poke and prod.

At a recent congressional hearing, PBS prexy Pat Mitchell managed to escape attack, with NPR topper Kevin Klose taking the brunt of the criticism for a radio story offending the the largest Christian lobby in the country.

But within 48 hours, Mitchell found herself in the hot seat over news that Sesame Workshop (producer of PBS mainstay “Sesame Street”) is introducing an HIV-infected Muppet to audiences in AIDS-ravaged South Africa.

Tauzin, chair of the House Commerce Committee, shot off a letter to Mitchell asking for an explanation. He wanted to know if it was true that Sesame Workshop was in discussions with PBS about bringing the Muppet to American airwaves, saying such a character wouldn’t be “age appropriate” for Stateside tots.

Also, did Mitchell know about the Muppet at the hearing? If so, why didn’t she mention it?

Mitchell answered Tauzin posthaste, explaining that she was unaware of the South African-bound, HIV-infected Muppet at the July 10th hearing. Like Tauzin, she learned of the Muppet two days later in press reports (Daily Variety, 7/12/02).

The PBS topper assured Tauzin that there were absolutely no plans to introduce the new Muppet to the U.S. version of “Sesame Street.”

But in the months to come, Mitchell and other public broadcasters can expect a barrage of other questions from Tauzin and other Republican solons.

Chief among concerns is the nagging perception that PBS is becoming commercialized through sophisticated underwriting messages.

Tauzin and others emphasize that the whole point in setting up public broadcasting was to provide TV viewers an ad-free haven. Hence, if PBS looks and sounds like a commercial net, why should it receive federal dollars doled out by the Corp. for Public Broadcasting?

The underwriting practices aren’t only alienating the GOP; consumer advocates are also peeved.

Public broadcasters say they’re caught in a double bind, since the reason they’ve come to rely more and more on sponsor “messages” is to survive cutbacks in federal funding.

At the July 10th hearing on Capitol Hill, Mitchell made no mention of the fact that the PBS Board voted July 23rd to further relax underwriting rules and allow corporate mascots to appear in underwriting credits for PBS Kids shows.

The mascots must be still images only when appearing beside a corporate logo. Accompanying audio messages must promote education or support PBS.

Center for Digital Democracy prexy Jeffrey Chester says the FCC shoulders much of the blame by allowing PBS and public stations to carry plugs in the first place.

“It’s dishonest to say they are not ads,” says Chester. “But even if it walks like an ad and quacks like an ad, the FCC says it’s not an ad.”

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