Did OPB Bury "A Brief History of Disbelief?"

Jon Perr

During last night's episode of Bill Moyers Journal, host Bill Moyers interviewed Jonathan Miller, creator of a three-part series titled "A Brief History of Disbelief" to be aired on PBS stations beginning this week. Or perhaps "some PBS stations" would be a better description.

As it turns out, many PBS affiliates are apparently choosing not to run Miller's predictably controversial look at the roots and philosophy of atheism. And a quick check of the calendar shows that Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) has buried Miller's series from 2:00 AM to 5:00 AM on Monday, June 25.

That "A Brief History of Disbelief" might be controversial is unsurprising. Right-wing groups, such as the Concerned Women of America, are already ramping up opposition to Miller's program, which originally aired on the BBC in 2005. Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council deemed the work of the actor-director-author Miller to be "an evangelistic piece for atheism."

You would think that PBS would prefer to let its viewers decide such questions for themselves. After all, just last week PBS offered a two-part, four-hour look into "The Mormons," a timely examination given that faith's rapid growth and its inclusion of Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid and GOP White House hopeful Mitt Romney among its ranks. PBS has also repeatedly featured its acclaimed series "From Jesus to Christ."

But these are tumultuous times at PBS and in American culture writ large. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is still reeling from the blatant conservative agenda of its disgraced former head Kenneth Tomlinson. And in recent months, a flurry of books extolling the logic and virtues of atheism from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and now Christopher Hitchens, are causing an uproar in conservative circles.

Did OPB and other PBS affiliates in New York, Boston and San Francisco bury or ban "A Brief of Disbelief?" Perhaps the show just isn't very good or that PBS anticipated poor ratings. Unfortunately, those explanations are, well, unbelievable.

NOTE:  The series' web site includes a disclaimer that "A Brief History of Disbelief is not being aired exclusively by PBS, and it is not being carried on a national feed."  The site does encourage readers to contact their local PBS affiliates.

UPDATE 1, May 6: OPB CEO Steven M. Bass comments below and provides an update on the broadcast schedule for A Brief History of Disbelief, as well as background regarding OPB's funding and compliance with FCC regulations on inappropriate language.  As for ABHOD, he notes "When I learned of the scheduling of the 'History of Disbelief' program late last week, I asked our programmers to find a more prominent place in the schedule for it either before or after the initial run in late June. My guess is that the program will be of interest to many Oregonians, even those who may very much disagree with its premise. So stay tuned for further news on a more convenient time for the program."

UPDATE 2, May 7: The OPB Member Center responds with provide more background regarding ABHOD's independent distribution and subsequent local review process:

"A Brief History of Disbelief is currently scheduled to air on OPB Television June 25 from 2am-5am. The series will also be broadcast in a more prominent position in July. This program was offered to OPB from an independent distributor, not from PBS. OPB was not provided with a copy of the program to preview prior to the time our June schedule was set. Lacking any specific information on the quality and treatment of the program, we opted to place the program in an overnight time slot so that those who desire early access to the program have the option to record it and watch it."

Stay tuned...

UPDATE 3, May 8: Reader responses from PBS affiliates and feedback from the film's U.S. distributors suggest that procedural issues, rather than policy decisions, may be limiting the initial broadcast of A Brief History of Disbelief.

Both Portland-based OPB (above) and San Francisco's KQED noted that ABHOD was not centrally distributed or reviewed by PBS and claimed this impacted their near-term scheduling decisions. OPB apparently plans to show the series during a more convenient time (that is, more convenient than 2:00 AM) in July. As BlueOregon reader Antaresrichard reports, KQED and San Francisco Bay Area PBS affiliates have yet to set their schedules beyond June:

"The British producers of the program were not going to pay the additional costs to distribute it in the US until KQED called last year to express interest in the show. We have recorded the program for future use, but we don't have any airdates for it on KQED, KTEH or KCAH between now and the end of June, which is as far as our schedules have been planned."

In the interim, the show's U.S. distributors will continue to monitor whether are avoiding the program or whether "it's just a procedural thing."

Comments

  • Bob R. (unverified)
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    I stopped supporting OPB when they fearfully hid an episode of Postcards for Buster which featured (gasp) a female couple... relegating a children's show to an early AM time slot complete with a warning/disclaimer for parents. I wrote them a nice letter about it explaining how they could regain my trust and my money, but they did not reply. They still send the newsletter for some reason, costing them $$$.

    The point of being a member-supporter of OPB is to provide a place for the kind of programming the commercial marketplace does not usually provide. To then bury said programming at 2AM-5AM makes no sense whatsoever. Even Tivo-owning OPB members have to know that a show is coming up in order to record it... and I'm guessing OPB isn't heavily promoting this show.

    • Bob R.
  • SEBC (unverified)
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    Gee reminds me of the reception that dissent about global warming gets here.

    Face it, there is a lot of closed minded bigotry on both sides of the political spectrum. And both sides have their gods, its not necessarily bible based, but it is still a religion.

    Thanks JK

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)
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    The operative word in your bitch is "dissent," if you want to dissent do you have a reason to think you're going to be agreed with? The "dissent" post was put up, in plain sight, what exactly is your logical inference? Or are you just pissing and moaning for your own amusement?

  • ws (unverified)
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    OPB seems to go out of its way to avoid offending this or that groups personal sensibilities to sometimes absurd extremes. Example: last weeks showing of American Experience, "The Summer Of Love" about the hippie convergence in SF of 1967.

    In that program, Peter Coyote had a series of comment scenes. In one, addressing the official dismissal of any legitimate reason for the people to have gathered, he countered by offering a number of them, with each one finished by a phrase something like, "that's not bullshit" or "that wasn't bullshit". Each time the word "bullshit" was bleeped out leaving Coyote's mouth moving with nothing coming out. Funny.

    The programming OPB runs and when it runs undoubtedly has a little bit to do with who is contributing. What did I read fairly recently?...The governor cut something like $2 million of state funding to OPB from the budget. (It continues to get $500,000).

    So, significant contributors may be finding themselves in an increasingly better position to affect the manner of OPB's programming to an outcome that conforms more closely to their groups personal idea of deceny.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    I stopped supporting OPB when they fearfully hid an episode of Postcards for Buster which featured (gasp) a female couple...

    and

    So, significant contributors may be finding themselves in an increasingly better position to affect the manner of OPB's programming to an outcome that conforms more closely to their groups personal idea of deceny.

    I stopped supporting OPB for reasons other than Bob R's, but he and I and similar-minded people may have been wrong in that we probably abandoned the field to voices on the right; or, at least, weakened progressive supporters of OPB. I was impressed with Bill Moyers' return and renewed my membership and now recognize those of us opposed to the Christian Right and their ilk must get in there and assert ourselves. So, instead of criticizing from the outside, let's get inside and make our positions known to OPB's management and make this outlet fair and balanced - but not in the Fox News manner.

  • Bob R. (unverified)
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    Bill -

    Thanks for your comments. I've actually been poised and ready to support again for quite some time now, but I'm waiting for a bit more outreach than a generic newsletter or fundraising drive... I would like a concrete response to this very problem of burying "controversial" programming. I was promised such a response by the programming dept. back when I cancelled my membership. After two attempts to re-establish contact, I got nowhere.

    The whole Postcards for Buster thing was quite insulting... it wasn't just a fear of controversy, they outright labelled the program (which contained no sexual behavior or innuendo of any kind) as objectionable and requiring parental review. That sent a message to a number of gay couples (many of whom are OPB donors) that their very existence was inappropriate for children. If that's OPB's editorial viewpoint, fine, but I don't have to pay for that.

    Now, they're about to do it all over again: If you happen to be a non-believer (I'm more of an agnostic myself with close ties to a Christian tradition -- life is complicated), discussing the issues surrounding that non-belief, agnosticism, atheism, however you want to characterize it, is apparently so awful it has to be relegated to a 2AM time slot. OPB airs plenty of religious programming (that's fine) - but the nonbelievers (even here in the least churched state in the country) are still apparently 2nd class citizens as far as OPB is concerned.

    2AM is supposed to be for the reruns of stuff viewers may have missed, not for premieres.

    • Bob R.
  • Mike (unverified)
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    Jon -

    Great post. I have felt for awhile now that OPB and Public Broadcasting in general have been leaning more towards the right. I wonder if it has anything to do with the increase in corporate sponsorship? Anyway, I trotted on over to OPB to give them a piece of my mind and I found this nifty little survey.

  • Mike (unverified)
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    Above link to OPB survey is broken (oops). Here is the correct link.

  • ws (unverified)
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    I could swear I saw the controversial episode of Postcards from Buster during regular daytime programming. It's a very sweet and loving show. It's sad that somebody's religious priorities would find them at odds with the gentle efforts towards understanding that it offers.

    I don't find OPB's practice of labeling potentially offensive programs just prior to the showing of the program to be a problem. In fact, I think this is a good thing. I can't exactly remember off the top of my head what the standard text shot they use says, but contrary to what Bob R may understand to be the case, I don't think they actually state in that text shot that a particular program is "offensive", but rather, something to the effect that it "...may be offensive to some viewers...etc.".

    We live in a society of widely varied ideas, beliefs and viewpoints. Whatever the subject or presentation may be, it's safe to assume that it will be offensive to some fellow member of our society. It doesn't hurt to alert them and everybody else that they may be about to view something that doesn't jive with one or other of their beliefs and sensibilities. This is a good way to respect the possibly offended and educate those not offended in a small way about those that might be.

    Questions regarding the reasoning for programming the Jonathan Miller series into the wee hours of the morning is a matter that deserves a reasonable answer. The fine staff of OPB should have no problem providing contributors and potential contributors with such an answer.

  • psych (unverified)
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    Another, dissimilar example of OPB veering to market riches is "The Lawrence Welk Show" matched clearly with their planned giving program. Sad.

    Hey though - this frightful fearfulness is no reason to stop giving to public broadcasting. You chose to live in a provincial backwater among heathens. Be smart. Consider contributing to local KBOO or KMHD or, as I do, consider supporting some of the online content generators - KPFA or WBAI, or support a show directly like CounterSpin, Democracy Now, Diane Rehm, or On The Media. They all know how to cash a check and are fearless.

  • Larry McDonald (unverified)
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    My family are Cornerstone Society supporters of OPB radio for the very reason that we're not ready to yield the field of battle to the Right.

    I've sent the following email to OPB:

    "Could someone please confirm or deny the report that you've relegated the BBC documentary "A Brief History of Disbelief" to a single marathon showing from 2-5 AM on June 25.

    If the report is true, could you please explain why you've chosen to broadcast it at a time less likely to be viewed than has been offered to PBS viewers and memberss in such markets as Roanoke VA, Seaford DE, Portales NM, and Urbana IL?"

    I suspect that when the answer comes it will be along the lines of "We are one of the few PBS stations in the country even scheduled to carry that program and we're providing it in a way that allows our viewers to see the programs without arousing a firestorm of criticism from those who would find it offensive."

    I wish they felt the same way about the infommercials they run for the Lawrence Welk Theater in Branson MO.

  • Bob R. (unverified)
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    WS -

    It would be fantastic if the Postcards for Buster episode were now running as part of the regular rerun circulation. That's one of the things I suggested to OPB which would restore my membership. I hope you indeed saw it in regular rotation.

    Please note that I am not advocating that others drop their memberships -- just explaining why my personal threshold for withdrawing support was crossed.

    Now that Bill Moyers is back, I'm starting to feel a bit better... I would restore my OPB support, at double my previous level, if OPB would do (and acknowledge) two things:

    1. Run the Postcards for Buster episode in regular rerun circulation without modification.
    2. Premiere the new "Disbelief" series in a normal time slot.

    3. Bob R.

  • dartagnan (unverified)
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    "OPB seems to go out of its way to avoid offending this or that groups personal sensibilities"

    Anything controversial is going to offend somebody's sensibilities. Nowadays it seems many people are quick to take offense if someone even ventures to offer an opinion that contradicts theirs.

    Those who are offended by the mere airing of a program that presents the case for atheism -- a program which, by the way, nobody is making them watch -- must have very fragile faith indeed.

  • Bill Bodden (unverified)
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    Is there a group or web site promoting progressive viewpoints that promotes campaigns to send e-mails or other communications to OPB or PBS much like others solicit contacting politicians and corporations on particular issues? If so, it should be more effective in getting attention if there were large volumes of e-mails or phone calls on some topic within a short time span.

  • ws (unverified)
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    Bob R, I'm pretty sure I saw it in regular rotation, but if I did, it was probably the only time it did run in regular rotation. It was just about a week later that the news story about it broke, so I realized they thought they had a problem with the episode.

    Generally, I have no complaints with your comments. They're fine. I mostly wanted to clarify that OPB's wording of their pre-show disclaimers doesn't outright proclaim a show offensive, but just warns viewers that it may be offensive to some people. I still haven't noted the exact wording, so I'm not exactly guaranteeing what it reads.

    I enjoyed reading what "psych" had to say. My parents are from the Lawrence Welk generation, and they love that show. Personally, I developed a kind of aversion to it long ago, and avoid it almost always. At least at one time, Lawrence Welk was a pretty good musician with a pretty good band playing pretty good music. He was very important to a lot of people in the era of his orchestra's popularity. Since I'm not watching lately, I don't know anymore what the show's quality is like, but generally, running the show for a certain segment of the population seems like a reasonable thing to do. There's still a lot of folks like my parents still around. A lot of younger people like orchestra dance music too. Besides, don't they only run that show once a week, Saturday evenings at 7pm? There's other things that OPB does that are far more worthy of taking exception to.

  • Steven M. Bass (unverified)
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    I ran across this thread via a Google search and wanted to add my two cents.

    When I learned of the scheduling of the "History of Disbelief" program late last week, I asked our programmers to find a more prominent place in the schedule for it either before or after the initial run in late June. My guess is that the program will be of interest to many Oregonians, even those who may very much disagree with its premise. So stay tuned for further news on a more convenient time for the program.

    A few comments on some of the postings. OPB currently receives no state funding and has not since 2003. Governor Kulongoski proposed $3.75 million in funding for the next biennium, primarly to ensure that OPB can maintain and enhance its television services in rural Oregon (which are threatened due to the impending shut off of the analog television system in Feb 2009). The co-chairs of Ways & Means reduced the funding in their proposed budget to $500,000, which is much too little to pay for the capital costs involved. This is still very much in play in the legislature and if you're interested in more information, you can find it at: http://www.opb.org/insideopb/

    With regard to the bleeping of language, the Congress and the FCC have clamped down significantly on broadcasters in the wake of Janet Jackson. For each instance of indecent language, OPB is subject to fines of up to $325,000 per station (and we have five of them, so the potential risk is extremely high). One of the problem is that the rules aren't all that clear as to what is permissible and what isn't, which means that we're never sure when we're in defensible territory and when we're not. It's a real problem that affects many non-fiction programs, such as "Frontline." For an interesting perspective on the challenges making editorial decisions in this regulatory realm, you can listen to a "Fresh Air" program from last September at the following link: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5781899

    Steve Bass President & CEO OPB [email protected]

  • Urban Planning Overlord (unverified)
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    Well, this is apparently the second time PBS has shit-canned a show on religion. They recently mothballed a documentary on the violent nature of Islam.

    Political correctness goes both ways, apparently.

  • Ibid. (unverified)
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    Our household stopped funding OPB after 'Postcards' too - they seemed uncomfortable showing the piece because there's an incidental meeting by Buster of a family with a lesbian couple.

    We were told it was because OPB felt that it wasn't appropriate content for children - yet within weeks they showed a piece where children of the same age-group are taken to Sing-Sing to see how prisoner's live.

    Apparently for OPB murderer's and rapists are okay programming for children, but same-sex couples are not.

    They declined to respond to our e-mail asking for an explanation. We've noticed there's a lot of religious programming on OPB lately, the Shroud of Turin was a recent one.

    We would be happy to continue funding, but we're not interested in supporting an organization that excludes. And they don't seem to want to be more inclusive.

    And no, the fact that they ran the 'Postcards' episode finally - but at 4 AM in the morning - doesn't count.

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    My family also quit OPB after they selectively banished Buster's visit with two moms to the middle of the night. A staffer explained that it was "to protect children." After I complained, OPB reporter Colin Fogarty wrote back in an e-mail:

    "I certainly understand your anger about the Buster show. But you should know that it was PBS, not OPB, that decided not to air the show at all. OPB bucked its own network by putting it on the air. Granted, I don't personally see why it couldn't just air in its regular time slot. But that wasn't up to me."

    A rabbit visits two moms making maple syrup with their kids in Vermont - and selectively hiding them in the wee hours is a profile in public radio courage?

    KMUN is a terrific public station in Astoria, and we send our donations to them.

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    Jon (or Steve Bass) -

    Do you know if we can purchase a DVD of the series? It doesn't appear to be available from Amazon, or PBS or OPB...

  • LeoXXIII (unverified)
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    This week is their pledge drive---I suggest people call and make sure they know how many of us are not supporting them and why!

  • Bernard (unverified)
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    Miller's Atheism: A Brief History of Disbelief is an excellent program. It's perhaps too thoughtful for PBS though. Since PBS became the Andre Rieu, Wayne Dyer and Celtic Women channel, I'm not sure it has a place for anything as intelligent as Jonathan Miller.

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    I'm not sure it has a place for anything as intelligent as Jonathan Miller.

    OPB hadn't even HEARD of Jonathan Miller, if this response from their "Member Center" is any indication (see below)... It's a Jonathan Miller documentary from the BBC, and they claim concern about "quality" and "treatment?"

    OPB's phone number is: (503) 244-9900

    Dear Bill, Thanks for writing OPB to inquire about A Brief History of Disbelief We expected a lot of interest in this program and we're hearing from quite a few people this week.

    A Brief History of Disbelief is currently scheduled to air on OPB Television June 25 from 2am-5am. The series will also be broadcast in a more prominent position in July.

    This program was offered to OPB from an independent distributor, not from PBS. OPB was not provided with a copy of the program to preview prior to the time our June schedule was set. Lacking any specific information on the quality and treatment of the program, we opted to place the program in an overnight time slot so that those who desire early access to the program have the option to record it and watch it.

    Check your Member Guide or follow one of the "Programs A-Z" links at opb.org to find out more specific information as we get closer to July.

    Thanks for your interest in the program, and for writing OPB.

    Sincerely,

    Staci OPB Member Center

  • Bernard (unverified)
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    For those curious to see Miller's Atheism: The Brief History of Disbelief, you can watch it online here.

    http://www.veoh.com/videos/v290167nBNFCMmq (Part 1)

    http://www.veoh.com/videos/v290939G3cdaPWh (Part 2)

    http://www.veoh.com/videos/v2901107jearSnF (Part 3)

    After watching Moyer's interview, I would have preferred to have seen it on my local PBS station, but I guess only programs about theism get aired in primetime.

  • antaresrichard (unverified)
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    When alarmed, I went off half-cocked at our local PBS affiliate in San Francisco for the conspicuous absence of 'A Brief History of Disbelief' from their schedule, this is what KQED wrote me in reply.

    <i>"Checking for the facts before launching into a complaint is always a wise thing to do... The British producers of the program were not going to pay the additional costs to distribute it in the US until KQED called last year to express interest in the show. We have recorded the program for future use, but we don't have any airdates for it on KQED, KTEH or KCAH between now and the end of June, which is as far as our schedules have been planned.
    
    Red Dana
    Manager, KQED/KTEH/KCAH Audience Services"</i>
    
    I hope this clarification will be of some use to those of us living in and around San Francisco, San Jose, Watsonville, Salinas, and Monterey.
    

    Sincerely, antaresrichard

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    E-mail to Tom and Staci in the OPB Member Center...

    To Tom and Staci -

    I wrote in to ask why Jonathan Miller's BBC documentary "A Brief History of Disbelief" was hidden in the early morning hours of the OPB schedule instead of given a more accessible time slot so Oregonians might actually get to watch.

    Staci told me that OPB had concerns about "quality" and "treatment" (this about a popular BBC documentary produced and presented by acclaimed neurologist, theatre director, author and sculptor Jonathan Miller!), but Tom told me that wasn't the case (though that is still the case made by OPB on a recent Blue Oregon post).

    Tom tells me that "what we did mean was that we had not had a chance to preview the series at all before our scheduling needed to be finalized for June." Apparently, we'll now get to see Jonathan Miller at a more convenient hour sometime in July.

    My question is: why wasn't there time for OPB to "preview" this series? Why is it presented in MAY (often in prime time) on the following PBS stations, among others - WHYY (Philadelphia), WBRA (Roanoke, VA!), WBCC and WXEL (both in Florida!), KPBS (San Diego), WQED (Pittsburgh), and WDPB (Delaware)?

    Hell, it's even on in Wichita, Kansas (KPTS) THIS MONTH at 11pm!

    Staci and Tom, I'm thrilled to hear that we'll actually get to watch this show at a reasonable hour later this summer. It's a far better outcome than the approach you took with the show "Postcards from Buster," where the prospect of a rabbit visiting two moms making maple syrup in Vermont sent you into full "religious prejudice" mode, permanently and selectively banishing that episode to the wee small hours of the morning... (any excuses for that?) (you needed to taste the syrup?)

    Let's just say that all these excuses are, well, a little hard to believe. But I look forward to watching the series in July.

  • byard Pidgeon (unverified)
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    I'm very pleased with OPB airing the "Disbelief" series starting at 2 in the morning on June 25th...it gives all of us a reason to extend the heathen Solstice celebration, orgy, and bestiality festival for a few days more...sheep and goats are trembling in anticipation!

  • Jim (unverified)
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    If you'll take a bit more time you can find the entire series on Google Videos. They chopped them up into manageable 10 minute segments but they are all there...Until the freaking puritans read this probably.... A most amazing show..

  • Oregon Bill (unverified)
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    **** "A Brief History of Disbelief" is now officially scheduled to air at a more reasonable time in July..! (of course on SUNDAYS, when all good Baal-worshipping believers will be in church).

    From Tom Doggett @ OPB...

    "In response to viewer interest, the series has been scheduled on Sundays, July 8, 15, and 22 at 2:00pm."

    Nice work.

    Now if only we could rescue Buster the rabbit's visit with two moms making maple syrup in Vermont (since Margaret Spellings is embroiled in a corruption scandal at the Department of Education, and Falwell is dead, why can't OPB roll back another expression of Christian prejudice?)

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