Despite a staggering 100,000 E-mails and phone calls in protest, Nickelodeon will telecast a special for children about same-sex parents on Tuesday night. The half-hour report, produced by Linda Ellerbee and featuring Rosie O'Donnell, includes comments from the Rev. Jerry Falwell--who later joined conservative activists in urging Nickelodeon not to air it. The Washington, D.C.-based Traditional Values Coalition has spearheaded the campaign against "Nick News Special Edition: My Family Is Different" sight unseen. There were so many E-mails, Nickelodeon had to set up a separate address to avoid a computer crash. "It is a cover for promoting homosexuality for kids," said Andrea Lafferty, the coalition's executive director.
Nickelodeon says that's not so. Ellerbee, in the show's introduction, says, "The following program is about tolerance.... It is not about sex. It does not tell you what to think." Ellerbee, who won a Peabody Award for a Nickelodeon special that delicately dissected the Monica Lewinsky scandal for children, said she conceived of this show upon reading that the word "fag" had become the most common schoolyard epithet. O'Donnell's public acknowledgement that she is a lesbian put the subject in the news, Ellerbee adds. The program, which airs at 9 p.m. Eastern time, is largely a discussion. Although it also features a gay school principal and a gay New York City firefighter who is a father of three, children are the focus. Some children with gay parents talk about feeling uncomfortable about what other kids say in school. Other children discuss their objection to homosexuality.
"It is never a wrong time to talk about hate," Ellerbee says. "It's just not. That's all our show is about. It is not in any way about the homosexual lifestyle. It's not even introducing the subject to most kids. They know. But quite frankly, many of them know it from a hate standpoint without even knowing what they're talking about." But Lafferty says, "They keep saying it is not about sexuality. It is about sexuality." Parents are upset because many thought they never had to worry about Nickelodeon's content, she adds. "They have been led to believe that Nick is a safe harbor," she says. "Now they've been exposed. The skirt has been lifted, and Nick has been exposed." Lafferty was asked by Nickelodeon if the Traditional Values Coalition would recommend children to be included in the special. She refused.
Falwell agreed to be interviewed, however, and is quoted expressing his opposition to homosexuality on Christian grounds. He also said it's important to respect other points of view and not react with violence. He said later, in an interview with the Associated Press, that he is sorry Nickelodeon feels the need to "indoctrinate" children on homosexuality. "Nickelodeon should stay away from endorsing lifestyles that are generally not accepted by the American public," Falwell said. "It turns a children's network into something parents feel a responsibility to edit and carefully filter." Asked how he reconciled his participation in the show with a call not to air it, Falwell said, "I've often said I would preach in hell if they promised to let me out." Ellerbee said she was disappointed by Falwell's later comments.
Most of Ellerbee's Nick News programs air at 8:30 p.m. This show has been pushed back a half hour--to a time when the network usually runs old sitcoms--because of its sensitivity, said Herb Scannell, Nickelodeon's chief executive. Lafferty claimed advertisers wouldn't touch the show; Scannell said the plan was always to be commercial-free. Some other Ellerbee shows, including the Clinton discussion and one about AIDS, also contained no ads. Scannell said he has no hesitation about airing the special. "I thought it was in a territory that we've been before, in terms of looking at the world from a kid's point of view," he said. "The whole philosophy of Nick is that it's tough to be a kid in an adult world."