SINGERS: HEY, BUSTER! WHERE YOU OFF TO WHAT YOU UP TO, BUSTER WHERE YOU OFF TO NOW?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You may have heard in the news recently about a cartoon rabbit named Buster Baxter. He travels around North America visiting real life families as part of a public television show called Postcards from Buster. It's a production of WGBH in Boston, which received a large grant from the Department of Education to create a children's program that showcases diversity. For example, Buster stops off in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he meets a Mormon family, and he explores the local Chinatown of San Francisco. In one very recent episode, Buster finds himself in Hinesburg, Vermont, population 5,000. Buster learns how to make maple syrup from a young girl named Emma, and we learn that Emma has two mothers.
GILLIAN: Hi, Buster! I'm Gillian.
BUSTER: Hi, Gillian.
GILLIAN: Hi. You want to come on in? Karen, here's Buster and Beau.
KAREN: Hi, Buster.
BUSTER: Hi, Karen. Nice to meet you.
KAREN: Hi, Beau.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: DOE's new secretary, Margaret Spellings, objected to that episode, called Sugartime, and perhaps coincidentally, PBS decided not to distribute it to its member stations. "Many parents would not want their young children exposed to the lifestyles portrayed in this episode," wrote Spellings, in a letter to the CEO of PBS, Pat Mitchell. In a defiant move, WGBH has made copies of Sugartime directly available to all affiliates. So far, only around 40 have decided to air it. The majority, some 300, including Alabama Public Television, have said no. The executive director of APTV, Allan Pizzato, was quoted in the New York Times saying "We don't want to violate the trust parents have with us." Joining us from Birmingham is Allan Pizzato. Allan, welcome to On the Media.
ALLAN PIZZATO: Thank you. Love being here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What were the major considerations for APTV in deciding whether to air the episode?
ALLAN PIZZATO: Parents are not in front of the TVs with their children, normally, in the afternoons. Given that it is a controversial issue, it's not something that we wanted to present to children without parents being responsible for deciding when they wanted to present this issue to children, and we made our decision almost a week before anything came down from the Department of Education or PBS in terms of canceling the program.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, in a recent episode on Alabama Public Television, Buster visited San Antonio, Texas, where he met a 12 year old Mexican-American boy. Some have argued that ethnic differences are simply one part of the diversity that is the reality of our society, and that to ignore gay parents is, in a way, to ignore reality.
ALLAN PIZZATO: Well, ethnic society is a little bit different issue in terms of being presented to children. We looked at this as it was dealing with an issue of gay or lesbian parents that is not totally accepted by all people in, in the State of Alabama.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: If parents in your viewership indicated that they didn't want their children exposed to images of interracial couples, how would you respond?
ALLAN PIZZATO: Interracial couples is accepted by society. It's accepted in Alabama. It doesn't mean everybody likes that. It is also accepted in the courts. It is not as big an issue as the gay and lesbian issue is today, especially in Alabama. I think that still, this all boils down to children and what we're exposing to children without the parents being around to make the decision of whether they should see this or not.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Gay parents are also legally defended in the courts, so how do you determine which social norm has met that level of acceptability?
ALLAN PIZZATO: We just look at it as what we think the majority of the parents in Alabama would think if they found out that we provided this to their children without them knowing it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is a tricky question, and I think it's especially tricky for public broadcasters, but in a program like Postcards from Buster, the intention was - and I actually have here what the original grant application by the Department of Education called for - "diversity will be incorporated into the fabric of the series to help children understand and respect differences and learn to live in a multicultural society." What does that mean? If gay people are allowed to live together and even have children together, then why is it that they can't fall into the category of the sorts of images and differences that children are supposed to be able to understand and respect?
ALLAN PIZZATO: I think the fact that we're having this conversation and the fact that it's been in the New York Times and the fact that it's a public issue demonstrates that it is not the same as interracial couples or other ethnic groups and that there is a difference.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Allan, we're only having this conversation because PBS decided to pull the episode.
ALLAN PIZZATO: We would have been having this conversation if PBS had not decided to pull the episode. There would have been a great uproar. The Secretary of Education would have written a letter. That right there would have provided the conversation. And I'm not saying that the conversation is a bad one. I think it's a good one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think there's a political component here? When the Secretary of Education starts asking for grant money to be returned, as she did in this case, does that get your attention?
ALLAN PIZZATO: Well, as I said, we made our decision before-a week before that was ever done. To us, it really was not a political decision. Parents in one area of the country, especially in the Vermont area, would probably see this as totally appropriate. In other states, in other areas, they would not see it as appropriate. Whether right or wrongly, which is really not the issue, we know that parents would have been extremely upset if we would have aired that program. They appreciate that they - that it is a safe haven, and they appreciate that they don't have to think or worry about what their children are seeing or learning or hearing on Alabama Public Television. And, in my mind, this whole thing boiled down to - will the majority of parents in Alabama feel that they were betrayed by Alabama Public Television and be upset over the fact that this aired?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Thank you very much.
ALLAN PIZZATO: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Allan Pizzato is the executive director for Alabama Public Television in Birmingham, Alabama.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, that was the interview. Obviously, we recorded it earlier. But before we stopped taping, suddenly another voice chimed in. It was the engineer, recording Allan Pizzato's end of the conversation at a commercial station in Birmingham - Courtney Hayden, a longtime APTV viewer.
COURTNEY HAYDEN: Brooke, if you don't mind, I've just met Allan for the first time just a few minutes ago, and speaking as a subscriber to Alabama Public TV, understand that this isn't the kind of fight you want to pick for Alabama Public TV at this time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's very interesting.
COURTNEY HAYDEN: We understand in Alabama that public broadcasting has ever been an endangered species, and APT depends so much on public support financially, that if he stirs up something like this that would jeopardize their funding among a core demographic, I, I think that Allan made - at least on that level - whether consciously or subconsciously - that was exactly the right decision. And I think that just because public broadcasting is taken for granted in other parts of the country, over the years, it has brought an amazing diversity of programming to a state which, otherwise, I think might never have seen it. It's, it's a precious jewel here in the reddest of the red states.
ALLAN PIZZATO: But my comment is - and I appreciate his comment - but, but the whole issue of jeopardizing funding and people being upset - we deal with that from time to time with a lot of different issues, over programming that we are… that's not what this decision was all about.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, thank you very, very much for that, too. I feel like a got a two-fer. [MUSIC]