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PBS feels heat of indecency debate, bleeps Iraq war piece
Seattle Times TV critic
Kay McFadden / Times staff columnist
War is hell. Just ask PBS.
The raging battle over what's indecent on TV claimed another hostage yesterday: "Frontline," the award-winning public-news program whose story about a group of soldiers in Iraq has caused a ruckus even before it airs next Tuesday.
The 90-minute piece was filmed in November and is titled "A Company of Soldiers." It follows members of the 1st Battalion of the Army's 8th Cavalry, whose dangerous job was to protect bodyguards assigned to senior officers in south Baghdad.
Many of the scenes are vivid, as one might expect from men and women under fire. So is the language — and that's the problem.
With the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) mounting crackdown on indecency and the U.S. House of Representatives' decision this week to dramatically increase fines on TV and radio stations, PBS took no chances.
It edited the nationally televised version of "Frontline" that will be fed to member stations. Instead of cursing during an ambush or sniper attack, there is bleeping.
The unexpurgated version will be available to stations that want it, but with a major caveat. The show will not be indemnified by PBS or producing station WGBH-TV, meaning that if the FCC levies penalties, an airing station is financially on its own.
As it turns out, that would include KCTS-TV in Seattle. General manager Randy Brinson said yesterday the station will broadcast "A Company of Soldiers" with the unedited language in its usual 10 p.m. slot Tuesday.
"I watched the program with the flagged comments, and I think that they are totally in context," Brinson said. "They are journalistically appropriate, they underscore the story, and our decision is to go with the program as originally produced."
In a telephone interview, he decried the growing atmosphere of "self-censorship and second-guessing" in the media. "We hope to send a message to the system that it's time to revisit these rules and the narrow interpretation of them."
Fanning said he wanted PBS to make the unedited version its main feed to stations and offer the bleeped version as a second choice — typical practice until a year or so ago.
That seems unlikely. The House on Wednesday passed a bill by a 389-38 vote that would increase FCC fines for companies from $32,500 to $500,000 for every offending "incident," loosely defined as a word or deed. Theoretically, if the FCC found two words in a show offensive, it could result in a $1 million fine.
Fines, pressure growExecutives for the strapped PBS system have cited cost as the main reason for caution. Many observers, however, think the problem is increased pressure from conservatives within the White House and Congress to reformulate public television's programming.
The Department of Education last month threatened to yank its financing for the animated children's television series "Postcards from Buster" if an episode featuring a visit to children with lesbian parents were to air.
PBS removed that episode and a wave of strong criticism from liberal supporters ensued, although WGBH bypassed public television and made the episode available to interested stations, including KCTS. On Monday, PBS President Pat Mitchell announced she will not seek to renew her contract when it expires in 2006.
Yesterday, Jacoba Atlas, senior vice president and co-chief of programming for PBS, praised "A Company of Soldiers" and said the choice to edit it was made reluctantly.
"We used to feel that in series like 'Frontline,' with integrity and good storytelling, language like that was OK," she said. "But it's become pretty clear over the past two years that certain words — the F-word being one of them — are actionable."
Of that, there is little doubt. Since Janet Jackson's breast-baring during the Super Bowl halftime show just over a year ago, broadcasters have been hit by a wave of fines and increasing pressure from regulators to trim questionable content.
The FCC has not offered much insight into its process for determining obscenity or indecency.
The agency reversed a decision on singer Bono's use of the F-word in an NBC Grammy acceptance speech, first allowing it and later saying it was a violation. It levied big fines on CBS stations for the Super Bowl incident and on Fox stations for the risqué (and canceled) reality series "Married By America."
Conversely, the FCC last month rejected 36 complaints about "Friends," "The Simpsons" and the movie "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."
Reuters recently reported the agency will dismiss complaints against 159 ABC affiliates that aired "Saving Private Ryan" last November. No announcement has been made.
That film, which reprises the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II, contains profanity and violence. It also may have a strong bearing on the "Frontline" story.
Atlas said the FCC's OK of "Saving Private Ryan" would provide some of the clarification needed for wartime content in such programs as "A Company of Soldiers."
But asked if PBS would air the unedited version later based on such an FCC decision, Atlas was not sure. PBS recently edited a nude image from a documentary on Auschwitz.
Kurt Wimmer, an attorney specializing in First Amendment and regulatory issues at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington & Burling, advised ABC affiliates on airing "Saving Private Ryan" and recently counseled "Frontline."
He concluded that the contents of "A Company of Soldiers" are valid in the context of news.
"It seems to me that if you have the use of the F-word and S-word in the heat of battle, it's not indecent because they are not sexual or excretory," Wimmer said. Moreover, "This is actual news footage; it really occurred; it is critical to the integrity of the show."
Those words, he added, are "part of life. It almost seems unpatriotic to say you've got to sugar-coat a war that we are paying for and that people are dying for."
Kay McFadden: email@example.com
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