PBS clarifies Muppet issue

HIV-infected character for South Africa only

WASHINGTON — Soothing concerns raised by Republican lawmakers, Public Broadcasting System said Tuesday it has no intention of introducing an HIV-infected Muppet to American airwaves.

Rather, the new Sesame Workshop character is intended for South African audiences only.

In a letter dispatched to Rep. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and other solons, PBS prexy Pat Mitchell explained that Sesame Workshop is an independent org that developed the new Muppet in concert with South African educators and the U.S. Agency for Intl. Development.

The female, HIV-infected Muppet will bow Sept. 30 on Takalani Sesame.

“There are no plans to incorporate this character or curriculum into ‘Sesame Street’ on PBS,” Mitchell said.

Tauzin and other pols said they didn’t think it would be appropriate to bring the Muppet to the U.S., reminding Mitchell in a letter sent over the weekend that Congress has financial oversight of PBS.

Top Tauzin aide Ken Johnson said that his boss was satisfied with Mitchell’s response.

“The issue is over,” Johnson said. “We had a real simple argument — let kids be kids. They are going to grow up fast enough. They are going to learn about AIDS, world famine and terrorism soon enough. Why can’t they laugh and play for awhile?”

It’s another story when it comes to AIDS-ravaged South Africa, where one in nine people are estimated to have the human immuno-deficiency virus, which causes AIDS.

The new Muppet is intended to humanize and de-stigmatize people with HIV or AIDS. Character will be “lively, friendly and an active participant” in all adventures featured on the show.

“There was an overwhelming local desire and passion to bring this issue to the program,” Sesame Workshop assistant veep for international projects Robert Knezevic said.

Dirk Dijkerman, the U.S. Agency for Intl. Development’s director in South Africa, said the new Muppet is a “tremendous teaching opportunity” that will reach almost 14 million people per week via TV and radio.

Johnson said Tauzin doesn’t have a problem with the involvement of U.S. AID in the South African project.

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