PBS conflicted over adult language in Ken Burns' 'War'
Sunday, August 26, 2007
Public television stations can't wait to air Ken Burns' newest documentary, "The War," next month as the 14-hour World War II series promises to be a ratings bonanza for the ratings-challenged outlets.
But some member stations, including San Francisco's KQED, are also scared to air Burns' original version in prime time because it contains four words: two are f-; one is s-; and the fourth is -hole.
They are words that 1940s military personnel and countless other Americans use every day, but expletives that The Chronicle doesn't ordinarily publish and that the Federal Communications Commission says can't be uttered on public airwaves between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
And that uncertainty is the problem, especially in an age where viewers of all ages regularly hear curse words and see violent and sexual images online and on cable television.
Many public broadcasters aren't sure whether the FCC will fine public television stations for airing "The War," and the FCC hasn't revealed its position. That uncertainty is placing the broadcasters in a difficult position. They must either show a documentary in a form other than the artist created, or risk getting hit with large fines for broadcasting naughty words.
After hearing from worried affiliates, the Public Broadcasting System decided to supply its 350 member stations with a "clean" version of "The War" scrubbed of the four words.
"But other stations were adamant that they wanted to take a stand on this and wanted to air (the original version)," said John Boland, PBS' chief content officer. Neither PBS nor Burns knew how many stations planned to air the original version. "I think the (original) version is entirely defensible," Boland said.
Others aren't sure. They're confused by what Georgia Public Broadcasting Program Manager Gillian Gonda calls "the mixed messages the FCC has been sending."
The commission didn't punish ABC for airing "Saving Private Ryan" during prime time in 2004, even though the drama included at least six times as many f- bombs. Why? Because the commission found, in a 2005 ruling, that the words weren't "used to titillate or shock."
But the commission fined KCSM, a public broadcaster operated out of San Mateo Community College, $15,000 for profanity that aired in the Martin Scorcese-produced documentary "The Blues: Godfathers and Sons." In a 2006 order, the commission said, "The gratuitous and repeated use of this language in a program that San Mateo aired at a time when children were expected to be in the audience is shocking."
Scorcese replied in a letter to the FCC last year that he had "deep concern over the adverse impact that the FCC's actions will have on the creative process generally."
Why did the FCC pick on tiny KCSM? Because a single viewer complained about it.
"All it takes is one viewer to complain," said Marilyn Lawrence, KCSM's general manager. Given the $200,000 in discretionary spending the station has in its $5 million budget, Lawrence said $15,000 isn't an insignificant amount. Although the station is appealing the fine, KCSM remains skittish about attracting the FCC's attention again.
For a recent art history show it aired, the station instructed its producers to airbrush the nude behind of the Venus de Milo statue. While KCSM has restored the full contours of Venus' marble behind in subsequent airings, it still precedes the program with a "Viewer Discretion Advised" warning that states, "The following program is a college-level telecourse and may contain subject matter intended for mature audiences."
The station also still pixelates bare body parts in movies like 1967's PG-rated "The Graduate" - even when the movie is aired as part of a film-history telecourse. The station is so scared about profanity leaks that it bleeped out a person cursing in German in an English TV program it aired.
"Now, my staff spends at least half a day a week looking for those types of things," Lawrence said.
Big stations are feeling a chilling effect, too. A legal counsel at Philadelphia-based WHYY, one of the nation's largest public broadcasters, advises that poets who appear on one of the station's radio shows not read any of their work that includes the s-word.
Yet next month, WHYY will air the original version of "The War" when it premieres Sept. 23, and the "clean" version in subsequent airings.
"I advised my board and told them that this is not a risk-free decision," said Kyra McGrath, vice president for strategic projects and legal counsel at WHYY. Yet she feels confident that the profanity in "The War" is contextually appropriate, much as the FCC found in "Saving Private Ryan."
According to its 2005 opinion and order in the "Saving Private Ryan" case, the FCC looks at three factors in determining whether something is obscene:
-- The explicitness or graphic nature of the description or depiction of sexual or excretory organs or activities.
-- Whether the material dwells on or repeats at length descriptions of sexual or excretory organs or activities.
-- Whether the material appears to pander or is used to titillate or whether the material appears to have been presented for its shock value.
Earlier this summer, a federal court in New York said the FCC went too far when it issued two rulings against Fox Television for expletives uttered on live broadcasts in 2002 and 2003. But because those instances involved "fleeting" profanity, they are not entirely applicable to evaluating the content of a meticulously edited documentary like "The War."
KQED, the Bay Area's public television outlet and one of the nation's largest, plans to air the cleaned-up version of "The War" at 8 p.m. Sept. 23. It will follow with an 11 p.m. showing of Burns' original version.
The reason is largely financial. Station officials fear the Federal Communications Commission may fine them up to $325,000 for airing profanity before 10 p.m.
"It is done with reluctance," said Jeff Clarke, president and CEO of Northern California Public Broadcasting, the organization that includes KQED. Incurring a fine, he said, would not be financially responsible to those funding the member-supported station. "And in this case, I don't think viewers will notice the difference of eliminating those four words over 14 hours," he said.
In Atlanta, where Georgia Public Broadcasting is a top 10 public television broadcaster, station officials are waiting to view the entire series before deciding which version to use. "On paper the words may look bad," said Program Manager Gonda. "But once you see it in context you might think differently.
"Plus, Ken Burns is such an exceptional filmmaker that you know that he wouldn't include something gratuitously," she said. "But ever since the Janet Jackson thing (where several CBS stations were fined after the singer accidentally bared her breast during a live broadcast of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show), it's harder for stations to make a decision on issues like this."
Burns has mixed emotions about the hesitancy some stations are showing, saying it is "absurd and yet, at the same time, I understand it. Public television has this impossible mandate to be all things to all people."
The occurrences of the cursing are in context, Burns said. The f-words are used to describe the acronyms FUBAR and SNAFU, and the other two are uttered by a soldier discussing what it's like to be shot at while in a B-17 airplane.
Is that enough to inspire a letter-writing campaign to the FCC?
"I don't know why the stations wouldn't just air the version without those words in it," said Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Council, which has mounted several letter-writing campaigns to the FCC. While expressing respect for Burns' past work, he said his organization would evaluate "The War" when it premieres. "It's hard to believe that removing four words are going to significantly damage the program."
Burns finds it odd that nobody has expressed concerns about the level of violence in the film. Nobody has complained to him about the beheadings in "The War" or "the dead bodies stacked up like cordwood," Burns said. Even media watchdog Winter, who has worked at MGM and NBC, said "it's hard to make a movie about war without showing what war is like."
Ever the student of American culture, Burns offered a theory on why some people are more offended by language than violence.
"We are both a permissive and a puritanical culture," he said. And the discussion over the language in "The War" "is like one of those intersections where an old jalopy filled with drunken revelers is headed toward a bus full of evangelicals."