- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

The new HIV-positive "Sesame Street" Muppet will not be introduced on U.S. television and will remain in South Africa on "Takalani Sesame," the president of the Public Broadcasting Service said yesterday.
The new cast member is targeted "specifically and solely to South Africa to address the raging AIDS epidemic there and its critical impact on children and families," PBS President Pat Mitchell said in a letter to Congress.
In response to a July 12 inquiry by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Mrs. Mitchell said, "It is my understanding that there have been no such discussions at Sesame Workshop," which produces the program.
"Contrary to some reports, there are no plans to incorporate an HIV curriculum to Sesame Street," she said.
Committee members questioned whether such a character should be introduced to American preschool children and demanded to know how much taxpayer funding was being spent on the project.
Rep. Billy Tauzin, Louisiana Republican and committee chairman, said the average demographic for the show in the United States is children ages 2 to 4, and that HIV would be an unfit topic for American toddlers.
"We are concerned that what may be fitting for viewers of Sesame Street in South Africa (which reportedly has the most HIV-infected people of any nation in the world), may not be appropriate for children in the United States, especially in such a very early age group," Mr. Tauzin wrote.
Mrs. Mitchell said no PBS funds support the South Africa project but added that "while I am not privy to the details of the arrangement, I understand that the USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development] contributed funding to the production of 'Takalani Sesame.'"
USAID says its goal in South Africa is to help "build the capacity of the majority of its people to realize political, social and economic empowerment."
In the United States, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting gave "Sesame Street" $2.8 million for 2002, and the Education Department contributed $2 million to the children's program.
No decision has been made on the new female Muppet's name, form or color, set to make its first appearance Sept. 30, but a spokesman said the character "will have high self-esteem."
"Not every show will deal explicitly with HIV/AIDS," Joel Schneider, vice president of Sesame Workshop, told Reuters. "We want to show that here is an HIV-positive member of our community who you can touch and interact with."
The congressional letter also was signed by Republican Reps. Fred Upton of Michigan, subcommittee chairman on telecommunications and the Internet; Cliff Stearns of Florida, subcommittee chairman on commerce, trade and consumer protection; Joe L. Barton of Texas, subcommittee chairman on energy and air quality; and committee members Rep. Richard M. Burr of North Carolina, and Rep. Charles W. "Chip" Pickering Jr. of Mississippi.
"Sesame Street" productions address specific issues in 20 different countries where the show is broadcast.
It promotes education and self-esteem for girls in Egypt and prepares Russian children for life in an open society. In Israel and the Palestinian territories, "Sesame Street" attempts to "demystify differences among children and foster appreciation and respect for one another," according to its Web page.

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