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Virtue Is on the Air

OK, so I'm a critic of the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Its leftist political bias is persistent and longstanding. In the age of cable, it's superfluous and, therefore, a waste of scarce taxpayer money. And the principle is wrong to begin with: the government ought not to be in the business of broadcast network programming. The Gingrich revolutionaries had the opportunity to privatize PBS through legislative fiat, but in the wake of a blistering lobbying campaign, they blinked. The privatization effort did get someone's attention, though, and the quality of PBS programs has improved. Witness "Adventures from the Book of Virtues."

The series, which aired episodes September 2nd through the 4th from 8 to 9 p.m. Eastern, with more new installments to be broadcast in January, is an animated cartoon adaptation of William Bennett's best-selling anthology. In the TV version, wise talking animals teach two children, eleven-year-old Zach and ten-year-old Annie, two lessons every hour about work, honesty, and the like.

Sure, making Annie an American Indian smacks of a small sop to the politically correct crowd, but this choice doesn't dilute the show's message in any meaningful way. And that's about the most negative thing that can be said about the series.

The segment on compassion illustrates the point. The animals recount to Zach and Annie the story of three children looking after their elderly mother, motivated not by concern for her welfare but by greed, the desire to inherit her treasure box after her death. After the woman passes away, the story goes, her children open the box only to find glass and, at the bottom, a note reading "Honor thy father and mother." Ashamed, the children dedicate themselves to becoming more considerate of the feelings of others. To further reinforce the theme, the tale of the Good Samaritan and the fable of Androcles and the lion are told.

This material, dealing explicitly with ethics, conscience, and character, is especially striking when contrasted with the values taught during the same time slot on the commercial networks. Last season between 8 and 9 p.m., during what not so long ago was known as the "family hour," vulgarity, promiscuity, disrespect for authority, and general social irresponsibility were common. Shows like "Friends," "Roseanne," and "Martin" are putrid enough in a vacuum, but "Adventures" serves as a spotlight, fully exposing the moral rot that has infected so much of the programming aimed at young audiences.

In fact, some of the networks that strive to outraunch each other with series like those three shunned this eminently worthy family program. "Adventures" executive producer Bruce Johnson says that while NBC was not approached, CBS gave the show the thumbs-down and ABC was interested in it - only as daytime programming. Oddly, of the major commercial networks, it was Fox, which made its name belching forth steamy ("Melrose Place") and crass ("Married...With Children") fare, that came closest to airing "Adventures" where Johnson insisted - in prime time. (It should be noted that HBO and the Family Channel also were interested in "Adventures.")

It wasn't the prospect of political controversy that made the networks shy away. Though Bennett is a Republican, "Adventures" is non-ideological. Don't take my word for it; ask Edward Asner, who is as vehemently leftist as anyone in Hollywood yet provided one of the voices for a January episode. Other outspoken liberals, like Ed Begley, Jr., Kathy Najimy, and Paula Poundstone, have voiced characters as well.

"The Book of Virtues," and now its television adaptation, do not advance a political agenda. Rather, they outline a tradition containing thousands of years' worth of wisdom, and in so doing provide the best possible response to the moral relativism that has so polluted the popular culture. The stories in "Adventures," Johnson says, "illustrate something that connects and resonates within the human psyche, whether it's the 1890s, the 1990s, or even the 2190s." In other words, they are timeless - another contrast with the prime time plotlines on the networks, which strive for trendiness and ultimately do nothing for the public good.

So why did the networks turn "Adventures" down for their prime time lineups? Several months ago I was meeting with a prominent California businessman, discussing the need to restore positive values to entertainment television. "Why is everyone so afraid," he interrupted at one point, "to use the right word: Virtues!" He was, of course, correct - and it explains the reluctance so many in Hollywood have to explore topics they see as controversial. So kudos to PBS and its sponsors: CIGNA, the Arthur Vining Davis Foundation and the John M. Olin Foundation. Yes, PBS also used federal funds for the project. To the extent that the American taxpayer is forced to pay for PBS, I choose to believe that the totality of my tax bill was devoted to this show.