Alabama Public Television headquarters. Photo by Chris Pruitt
How does a preadolescent cartoon aardvark get himself banned from public television in the state of Alabama – and make us question the nature and role of public broadcasting in the process?
Simply by attending the wedding of his teacher, Mr. Ratburn.
You may have heard by now that Alabama Public Television refused to air this season’s premiere episode of “Arthur,” the long-running children’s series that explores the lives and coming-of-age issues of an anthropomorphic boy, his family and friends in their fictional hometown of Elwood City. In this episode, Mr. Ratburn, a teacher whose sexual orientation has never previously been addressed, marries another man, referred to in the episode’s title as his “special someone.”
While acknowledging that many parents would view the episode’s message as entirely appropriate, the channel’s program director said airing the episode would be a violation of trust with parents who are unaware of the content and would find it inappropriate or objectionable.
What the station did not say is this: Alabama Public Television operates on an annual budget of about $14 million, of which more than half – around $8.3 million, according to the station’s latest report – is appropriated by the Alabama Legislature.
This is the same legislature that recently passed the most extreme version of a spate of anti-abortion legislation conservative-leaning states have implemented to provoke a judicial review of Roe v. Wade. (My colleague Linda Field Elkin discussed that legislation recently in this space.) The members of this legislature are elected in a Republican-dominated state whose GOP primary voters in 2016 practically handed a U.S. Senate seat to Democrat Doug Jones by insisting on nominating ex-state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore. Moore’s belief that Christianity (as interpreted by himself and others of like mind) should guide public policy led to him being forced from that judicial office not once, but twice.
So a kids’ show about love and the private lives of teachers, something that would be considered normal and innocuous fare in most of the country, is political poison in the state of Alabama in 2019. I don’t believe that protecting the parental privileges or moral sensibilities of viewers was the primary reason for APT’s decision to air an “Arthur” rerun in place of an episode featuring a same-sex wedding. At best, those considerations were secondary. I would bet that the main reason the station did not air the episode was to protect itself from a political fight that it literally cannot afford to lose.
Same-sex marriage has been a reality in every state, including Alabama, since the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges. Children who are as young as the target audience of “Arthur” will grow up with only a vague awareness that same-sex marriage was ever an issue anywhere, other than possibly in their churches or other houses of worship. For the most part, they will know it simply as a fact. Its distinctiveness will eventually fade, just as the notability of interracial marriage has faded over the last half-century.
Which makes me wonder: Would APT have blocked a children’s show featuring an interracial marriage? Although in 2019 I believe it would not, I can’t be entirely sure. This may tell us something about the state of Alabama, but it also tells us something about the state of public broadcasting.
Public funding of the arts is inherently political. This is true whether we are talking about the old Soviet Union, where artists worked for the state and the employer dictated what they produced, or about a democracy where lawmakers who grant money will attach whatever requirements or priorities they believe their constituents, who are paying for the product, demand.
Georgia has a generous and highly successful tax incentive program that has lured many film and television productions to the state. One show that did not film in Georgia, however, is the Netflix comedy series “Grace and Frankie.” This may simply be because the key cast and crew members, including stars Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, preferred to work near their Los Angeles homes.
But I wonder whether it also might have something to do with the fact that Georgia denies its credit to any production that runs afoul of the state’s obscenity statute. That statute largely tracks the Supreme Court’s case law on what constitutes “obscene” material – a line that “Grace and Frankie” certainly does not cross – but it also defines as obscene any material depicting “Any device designed or marketed as useful primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.” One “Grace and Frankie” story line involves the main characters going into the business of selling vibrators designed for use by older women. This could have called into question the eligibility of those episodes, if not the entire series, for the Georgia credit, which can cover up to 30% of production costs.
Side note: You may notice that this definition of obscenity would make any advertisement for vibrators or similar sexual aids legally obscene and criminal in the state of Georgia. I am not aware of the state taking this position in any recent prosecution. If it did, it would almost surely lose on First Amendment grounds. But just because someone has a right to publish or broadcast something does not mean the state must subsidize that message through appropriations or tax credits.
My own home of Florida does not have a statewide government-funded video incentive program, much to the chagrin of people in the industry here. But some counties have their own versions, and those local incentives in some cases require that the productions be “family friendly.”
Who gets to decide what is family friendly? If you ask me, nothing could be more family friendly than a children’s cartoon about a school teacher and a chocolate-maker entering into a loving marriage in front of their community. Then again, I’m not from Alabama.
Conversely, any broadcast showing modern opposition to same-sex marriage as anything other than bigoted or misguided would surely be dismissed as highly intolerant in places like Boston, whose WGBH television station is a primary producer of “Arthur.” But it might be seen as acceptable in Montgomery, the Alabama capital.
Public broadcasting arose in an era of scarcity, when only a few broadcast outlets were available and there was limited commercial support for fare that could not attract mass audiences, whether that meant high-quality scripted content for television or classical music on the radio. Technology and free markets have changed that landscape. You and I can find whatever we want, pretty much whenever we want it – at least as long as we are willing to pay for it.
There still is a place for public broadcasting to provide content of similar quality to those of us who can’t just buy what we want. In Alabama, lawmakers allocate more than $8 million per year for the state’s public TV system for that purpose. In return, they expect certain choices from those broadcasters. It should come as no surprise to anyone when Alabama’s public broadcasters genuflect to those demands. In both the public and private spheres, we ultimately get what we are willing to pay for.