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'Tales' Author: PBS Is Being Pressured by Religious Right : Television: Armistead Maupin feels that public network has pulled the plug on a sequel in face of pressure. A spokesman denies the charge.

April 11, 1994|JUDITH MICHAELSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the fate of a sequel to Armistead Maupin's acclaimed PBS miniseries "Tales of the City" up in the air, the public-television network is facing accusations by the famed San Francisco writer that it pulled the plug on future funding to accommodate the Religious Right.

"All I have to offer is my bewilderment and the personal belief that they have capitulated to pressure from extremists," Maupin said by telephone from his office-home. "I think they're running scared at PBS when it comes to criticism from the Religious Right and chose simply not to get embroiled in the controversy one more time."

Jennifer Lawson, PBS' executive vice president for national programming, denied that content had anything to do with not funding an additional six hours.

"We have not made it a practice of simply doing sequels (even on) the most successful programs," she said Saturday from Denver. "I can understand Armistead Maupin's disappointment (but) before it came at a much lower price, and we still have to consider other priorities (to bring) a real diversity of programming."

The first six-hour miniseries was adapted from the author's international bestseller that stemmed from his fictional columns in the San Francisco Chronicle about the everyday lives and loves of gays and straight people in the 1970s.

Airing on three consecutive nights in January, "Tales" drew about 7% of the national viewing audience, according to A. C Nielsen Co. ratings--double what PBS usually gets in prime time. It was PBS' highest-rated dramatic series in more than a decade.

At the time, the Rev. Donald Wildmon of Tupelo, Miss., urged members of his American Family Assn. to write Congress to protest tax money going to such programming.

Britain's Channel 4 picked up almost the entire $8-million tab on the first "Tales," according to Maupin, with PBS' "American Playhouse" contributing less than $1 million. This time, Maupin noted, the British commercial network was asking PBS for $4 million, or about half the production costs.

Maupin said that scripts on "More Tales of the City" circulated at PBS and "American Playhouse" last week, and said the content must have caused apprehension. In the proposed sequel, one of the storylines involves a character telling his mother that he is gay after she has become involved in a fundamentalist campaign against homosexuality.

Both Lawson and spokesman Harry Forbes say PBS had never committed to a sequel, and cited other funding priorities, including "Ready to Learn," its expanded commitment to educational children's programming, and "Democracy Project," a new news and public-affairs programming initiative leading up to the 1996 elections.

"Let me put it this way," said Maupin, when asked why he didn't believe money was the issue. "Lindsay Law ('American Playhouse' executive producer) spoke directly to Lawson and asked her if PBS would be willing to run 'More Tales of the City' if 'American Playhouse' found the means to finance it (independently); she refused to give him an answer. In other words, when we eliminated all financial considerations (as a hypothetical), we were stonewalled."

Lawson, who did not dispute the conversational account, nevertheless said she doesn't discuss "hypotheticals."

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