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    GOP Grouchy Over HIV Muppet

    Call it the Great Muppet Caper, part two.

    Disturbed by the prospect of Sesame Street introducing an HIV-positive Muppet on its South African version as part of an AIDS education effort, a group of conservative lawmakers is making like Oscar the Grouch and has sent a letter to PBS expressing concern over the appropriateness of such a character and subject matter on public television.

    "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," reads the letter, which was obtained by Daily Variety.

    Five Republican members of the powerful House Commerce Committee, led by chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana, also reminded PBS president Pat Mitchell that Congress has the last word on funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, PBS' backer.

    The new HIV-infected female Muppet is set to debut September 30 on Takalani Sesame with the goal of helping combat the spread of HIV and AIDS by educating youngsters on the epidemic and repudiating widely held cultural stereotypes about the virus and those infected. More than 10 percent of the South African population is infected with HIV.

    The forces behind Sesame Street say the character, who has yet to be designed or named, will freely interact with her fellow Muppets, and the topic of AIDS would be handled delicately and not explicitly mention sex.

    While the HIV-positive Muppet might later be introduced in other countries where a sizable percentage of the population is battling AIDS, PBS said last week that there were no immediate plans for a similar character to join Big Bird, Bert and Ernie, Elmo and the rest of the gang Stateside.

    Still, that's not stopping conservatives from taking swipes at the award-winning children's series. The American Family Association says the character is a means for homosexual activists to influence young viewers. And the Tauzin-led congressional letter-writers--which also included Represtentatives Joe Barton (R-Texas), Cliff Stearns (R-Florida), Fred Upton (R-Michigan), Charles Pickering (R-Mississippi) and Richard Burr (R-North Carolina)--are taking PBS' Mitchell to task.

    "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 letter continues.

    The politicians, all supporters of a movement in Congress to slash funding for public broadcasting, have requested that Mitchell respond to their inquiry by Friday. She been asked to answer such questions regarding how much funding PBS annually allocates Sesame Street; whether or not the PBS bigwig would allow corporations to play a larger role in underwriting more programming; and whether the show has plans to bring the HIV-positive Muppet to America. This despite PBS' assurances that it wasn't.

    Ironically, one of the few morality mavens coming out in support of the HIV-positive Muppet was none other than the Reverend Jerry Falwell. Falwell, who notoriously tried to out Teletubby Tinky Winky, says he believes the new Muppet will have a positive effect, as long as there is no discussion of its sexuality.

    A PBS spokesperson declined to comment Monday on the letter.

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