‘Tolerance’ loses to ‘asking for trouble’ in AETN decision to not air controversial Arthur episode

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 2,410 views 

Arkansas Educational Television Network (AETN) Executive Director Courtney Pledger at first believed airing a controversial episode of the cartoon series “Arthur” would present a lesson in tolerance. But the AETN “leadership team” would later decide to not air the episode on the public station’s main channel.

Entitled “Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone,” the “Arthur” episode included a same-sex wedding, which have been legal in all 50 states since 2015. The episode was supposed to air May 13. AETN decided not air the episode on its primary public channel, and instead posted the episode on its website and airing it on its AETN-3 channel.

On April 12, PBS KIDS Station Relations sent a note to stations alerting them that two “Arthur” episodes could be controversial. The first was the episode about the same-sex marriage, and the other was an episode about climate change. The alert from PBS also said they could “provide messaging for your use” about the two episodes.

Ryan Gregory, AETN program manager, forwarded the PBS alert to AETN executive staff on April 15. In a series of emails obtained by Talk Business & Politics through a Freedom of Information Act request, AETN staff began an internal communication about screening the controversial episodes and crafting messages around airing or not airing the episodes. Initially, Pledger advocated for airing the same-sex marriage episode.

“Let’s evaluate the screeners but my initial response is that if it’s handled well, it’s important for children to learn tolerance of the life choices of all people. Let’s look at them and then discuss,” Pledger noted in an email.

Julie Thomas, AETN marketing and engagement director, agreed: “Courtney, Well put. If we do run the episode, David, can you please contact Bara and Mary to get the messaging ahead of time and we’ll work together on a potential response.”

However, AETN Professional Relations Director Marty Ryall pushed backed against sentiment to air the same-sex marriage episode. In a lengthy April 18 email to Pledger, Ryall said AETN is “asking for trouble if we run it,” noting in subsequent emails that he had heard from Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, who objected to airing the episode. He also told Pledger that Arkansas is a conservative state with many who will not approve of a show they believe is promoting “a liberal, social agenda.”

“The creators say that the goal is to demonstrate that teachers have a life outside of the classroom. There are so many other ways to do that that will not be offensive to a large segment of our society,” Ryall noted. “There are many that consider it a sin. Whether you agree with that or not, there are many ways to promote inclusiveness and understanding of others, without having 4 to 8 years olds (sic) watch cartoon characters attend a gay wedding.”

He also was critical of PBS for having a same-sex wedding in an “Arthur” episode, noting it puts AETN in the position to make a choice on the episode “when there are so many other ways they can make the same point without making it controversial.”

Ryall, hired by AETN in October 2015, spent most of his career as a Republican political consultant. He was executive director of the Republican Party of Arkansas from January 1993 to September 1995, and March 2001 to December 2002. Ryall was the campaign manager for U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia who suffered a surprising loss in a May 2014 primary. His other campaign roles included campaign manager for Karen Handel, who would become the first Republican Georgia Secretary of State, and campaign manager for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., who lost her re-election bid.

Documents provided to Talk Business & Politics do not provide a record of how the decision was made to not air the same-sex wedding episode.

“The decision was made after much consideration by an internal leadership team. There was no pressure from anyone outside of AETN that would have influenced a decision,” according to a follow up statement AETN provided to Talk Business & Politics.

What emerged after Ryall’s objection to Pledger’s instinct to air the episode was the following AETN statement about the decision to not air the episode: “AETN was notified in April by PBS and producing station WGBH about the episode of ‘Arthur’ entitled ‘Mr. Ratburn and the Special Someone.’ We previewed the episode in question because content decisions that affect our smallest viewers and their parents are a major concern for us. While ideally parents watch our programming with their children and discuss it with them afterwards, the reality is that many children, some of them younger than the age of 4, watch when a parent is not in the room. In realizing that many parents may not have been aware of the topics of the episode beforehand, we made the decision to not air it.”

Ryall noted in a May 21 email to Pledger, Thomas and Ed Leon, AETN chief operating officer, that the statement should not cite received or expected objections from viewers.

“I’m a little concerned about putting this off on the viewers who expressed concern, as there couldn’t have been that many,” Ryall wrote.

The office of Gov. Asa Hutchinson said they had no input in the “Arthur” decision.

“The Governor was made aware of the decision after the fact. It was an AETN programming decision not to air the episode on AETN’s main channel (AETN-1). It did, however, air on AETN-3 and remains online. The Governor supports AETN’s discretion as to what it airs and how,” noted Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis.

AETN received $5.278 million from the state of Arkansas in the recent fiscal year, and $2.897 million was raised through the Foundation for the year ended June 2018, down from $3.061 million in the previous year. Total revenue in the recent year was $11.356 million.

The documents provided to Talk Business & Politics by AETN show that the station received more emails complaining about the decision to not air the episode than letters of support for the decision. One of the letters was from Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock.

“I am more than disappointed to hear of the decision to not broadcast the first episode of ‘Arthur’ on May 13th due to the inclusion of same-gender marriage,” McCullough noted in a May 22 email to Pledger.

Fort Smith businessman Storm Nolan also objected to the AETN decision.

“As an Arkansan I’m ashamed that our state’s educational television network would pull an episode of ‘Arthur’ because it portrayed a same-sex wedding. It takes courage to do what’s right,” Nolan wrote in an email to Thomas.

Bill Spitler, an attorney with Tulsa-based McDonald & Metcalf, noted in an email to Pledger he was surprised about bigotry in the organization.

“AETN’s decision to pull the ‘Arthur’ episode is akin to book burning and will not age well. Bigotry is alive in the places I least expect it. I will not be supporting AETN again until you are replaced,” Spitler noted.

A note of support came from Sharon Weiser, who noted: “Our society is trying to slowly depict in the media that same-sex relationships are the norm. … I am a Christian and I don’t believe this is what God intended. As the Romans in ancient days accepted this lifestyle as normal, thus began their downfall as a nation. I do not want my state or nation going down this path,” she said.

Timm Hillty, owner of Zark’s Fine Design Gallery in Eureka Springs, dropped his $150 a month sponsorship. Hillty told Talk Business & Politics he was assured by an AETN sales rep there “was a completely good reason” for the decision. But he said three messages left at AETN to learn about the “good reason” have not been returned. Hillty believes “the regime” of Gov. Asa Hutchinson had a hand in making sure the episode was not aired.