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Education secretary blasts PBS for cartoon with gay characters

WASHINGTON -- The nation's new education secretary denounced PBS yesterday for spending public money on a cartoon with lesbian characters, saying many parents would not want their children exposed to such lifestyles.

The not-yet-aired episode of "Postcards From Buster" shows the title character, an animated bunny, 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 yesterday 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, 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 said the "Sugartime!" episode does not fulfill the intent Congress had in mind. 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 yesterday 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."

Spellings has made her criticism of the publicly funded program's depiction of the gay lifestyle one of her first acts as secretary. She began Monday, replacing Rod Paige.

Spellings issued three requests to PBS:

 That her department's seal or any statement linking the department to the show be removed.

 That PBS notify its member stations of the nature of the show so they could review it before airing it.

 A refund "in the interest of avoiding embroiling the Ready-to-Learn program in a controversy that will only hurt" it.

The department has awarded nearly $100 million to PBS through the program over the past five years in a contract that expires in September, said department spokesman Susan Aspey.

The show about Buster also gets funding from other sources.

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