"Sesame Street" in U.S. bid to court Indonesians

JAKARTA Tue May 22, 2007 6:45am EDT

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JAKARTA (Reuters) - Tantan the orangutan and Jabrik the Javan rhino are among four new characters due to appear in an Indonesian version of the TV show "Sesame Street" -- part of U.S.-funded efforts to win hearts and minds in the Muslim nation.

The local version of the children's show, called "Jalan Sesama", which translates directly as Everyone's Street, is beginning production in Jakarta and expected to air later this year after contracts with Indonesian stations are secured.

The U.S. Agency for International Development had earlier set aside $8.5 million for 156 episodes, part of $157 million pledged in 2003 by the Bush administration for education in Indonesia, which Washington regards as a key voice of moderation and democracy in the Muslim world.

"The show will help in laying the foundations of elementary education that would benefit in later stages of education," William Frej of USAID said on Tuesday after the unveiling of the four new characters at a television studio in the capital.

Tantan, a smart orangutan with long shaggy orange hair who plays a motherly figure, and Jabrik, a baby rhino with a purple mohawk, both represent endangered Indonesian species and are very different from the original cast of the Muppets.

But the other two new characters -- Momon, a 5-year-old boy who likes math and drawing, and Putri, a 3-1/2-year-old girl with a healthy dose of curiosity -- bear a closer resemblance to Elmo and Ernie from the original show.

To help draw in Indonesian viewers, the screenplay plans to adopt many familiar elements of local culture, featuring singing in local dialects and the use of traditional musical instruments.

A miniature of a typical Indonesian neighborhood of clay-tiled houses, along with a motorcycle taxi stop and a snack vendor's cart, has been built in the studio in south Jakarta.

Indonesia is a key regional ally in the U.S.-led "war on terror" and looks to America for trade and investment.

But many of President George W. Bush's policies, especially in the Middle East, are unpopular in the world's most populous Muslim country.

About 85 percent of Indonesia's 220 million people are Muslims. Most are moderates although there is an increasingly vocal radical fringe.

The six-year U.S. education programme also includes spending on upgrading 3,000 schools across Indonesia, a country with huge health and poverty challenges.

Around half of the population of the Southeast Asian nation have to live on less than $2 a day, according to the World Bank.

John Heffern, charge d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, said at the launch that the show would allow "learning in a fun and creative way but there are also important messages that come through... Messages of good hygiene and good health, messages about the importance of girls' education."

Local versions of the show have aired in 120 countries including Egypt and Bangladesh, according to U.S. officials.

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