It's not going to happen.
So says PBS president Pat Mitchell. Again. Mitchell sent a letter Tuesday to a group of GOP congressman allaying their fears that such a character created for the South African edition of the children's educational program might somehow finds its way to American airwaves.
"There are no plans to incorporate this character or curriculum into Sesame Street on PBS," Mitchell writes, adding that "[PBS] has no relationship with Sesame Workshop regarding its South African programming" and has no intentions of underwriting the character's introduction in that country.
The new HIV-infected five-year-old female Muppet--who does not yet have a name, color or design--is expected to join the cast of South Africa's Takalani Sesame this fall. The character is intended to help dispel the myths that surround HIV and AIDS in a country where an estimated one in nine is infected with the virus and, by 2015, 15 precent of all children under 15 is expected to be orphaned due to the epidemic.
Mitchell was responding to inquiries made by House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-Louisiana) and five other House Republicans who sent a letter late Friday questioning PBS' intentions with the character they deemed inappropriate for preschoolers in the U.S.
They also took the time to remind her that Congress has the final say on funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
In her letter, Mitchell points out that she was unaware of the new Muppet just days before when she testified before Congress in oversight hearings on public broadcasting. She also notes that Tauzin's office was explicitly told the new character would not appear in the U.S. edition of Sesame Street on Friday, the same day Tauzin and his fellow lawmakers sent their letter out.
"The issue is over," Tauzin aide Ken Johnson tells Daily Variety. "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 a while?"
Sesame Street is allocated $4.8 million in federal funds along with additional money raised through local station drives. It is producer Sesame Workshop, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, that develops content for the various incarnations of the show.
The HIV-Muppet is being created for Takalani Sesame as part of an AIDS education initiative by Sesame Workshop in cooperation with South Africa's Department of Education and the South African Broadcasting Corporation--not to mention, as Mitchell notes in her letter, the U.S. Agency for International Development.
"The producers of Sesame Street work with local partners to identify and respond to local needs," says Robert Knezevic, Sesame Workshop's assistant vice president of international projects. "The South African partners recognized a critical need to address HIV/AIDS. There was an overwhelming local desire and passion to bring this issue to the program."
In other words, the Muppet is staying in South Africa--leaving American kids with Elmo and Big Bird and certain American lawmakers with more pressing things to worry about.