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Frontline tests FCC’s ‘indecency’
Does FCC care if soldiers swear?

Originally published in Current, Feb. 28, 2005
By Karen Everhart

Fifteen public TV stations last week tested how far the FCC will push its indecency patrol into public TV's editorial decision-making by airing an unexpurgated Frontline documentary at 9 p.m. with the rough language of American soldiers responding to insurgent attacks in Baghdad.

Forty-three licensees in all aired the doc, including those that ran it after 10 p.m., when the FCC permits airing of more adult content.

Frontline producers at WGBH, Boston, asked PBS stations to take a stand for the First Amendment by broadcasting an unedited version of “A Company of Soldiers,” a tense 90 minutes with soldiers of the U.S. Army 8th Cavalry's Dog Company as they stanch an insurgent campaign of bomb-ings and ambushes in southern Baghdad.

Sequences filmed during night-time forays in November were peppered with expletives that, PBS feared, could prompt indecency complaints to the FCC and expose stations to hefty legal fees and fines.

Less than a month after WGBH and 45 other stations decided to air an episode of Postcards from Buster that PBS dropped, the producing station again asked stations to take a bolder editorial stance than that favored by PBS.

The issue this time was not that the program stepped into the culture-war conflict over gay marriage, which Education Secretary Margaret Spellings deemed inappropriate for Buster (earlier story), but that soldiers in the uncut documentary used expletives such as “fuck” and “shit” more than a dozen times.

Frontline asked PBS to put the original version on its hard feed at broadcast time, but network execs at Braddock Place took a more cautious approach, hard-feeding the edited film and releasing a soft feed of the unedited documentary to stations only if they signed an agreement indemnifying the net-work and WGBH against FCC actions.

”The hard-feed is what every station thinks has no problem attached to it,” explained Coby Atlas, co-chief programmer. ”The last thing you want is a person making a mistake about which program they should air.” PBS's procedure aimed to ensure that general managers authorized broadcasts of the uncut film.

Most stations choosing the unexpurgated doc scheduled it after 10 p.m. Eight stations in central or western time zones added a late-night broadcast of the unedited film after presenting the edited version during Frontline's regular timeslot.

At Current deadline, Frontline had not received word of any complaints to the FCC, according to Louis Wiley, executive editor.

Producers believed strongly that they should not sanitize the profanities in “A Company of Soldiers,” which reflect the fear and stresses of soldiers under fire. Their attorneys advised that the doc would stand up to FCC scrutiny, because the profanities were not gratuitous or meant to be titillating.

”We think this is important, and our lawyers tell us it's a winnable case,” said Michael Sullivan, executive producer. Uncertainties over how strictly the FCC will interpret its indecency rules have led public broadcasters to edit programs out of fear of repercussions, he said. Frontline felt it was important to stand up for principles of editorial independence.

”We've got to find the real line in this, so we're not always running for cover,” he said.

Frontline's top producers noted that the FCC so far has not penalized ABC for airing strong language in a fictional war film—Saving Private Ryan, the Steven Spielberg movie about the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II.

Reuters reported Jan. 24 that a majority of FCC members, including outgoing Chairman Michael Powell, do not support viewer complaints about expletives spoken by actors in the movie. [After publication of this article, the commission released its ruling rejecting complaints about the ABC broadcast. See links.]

”That's going to be a tough writing assignment for someone on the commission staff,” said Larry Miller of Schwartz, Woods and Miller, a Washington, D.C., law firm that represents many pubcasting stations.

If the FCC rejects complaints about Saving Private Ryan because the context of questionable material is significant in determining indecency, the vote won't be easy to reconcile with the commission's Bono decision, which punished NBC for an isolated and nonsexual use of the word “fucking” during the 2003 Golden Globe Awards telecast, Miller said

[As the FCC rejected indecency complaints against the movie Feb. 28, Chairman Michael Powell commented: "Today, we reaffirm that content cannot be evaluated without careful consideration of context."]

”There's a political war raging at the commission and in Congress over indecency,” Miller said. With Powell exiting as chairman, and the House's recent vote to raise indecency fines to $500,000, he's uncertain how far the commission will go to enforce indecency standards. “Our clients are generally being cautious with respect to the Frontline,” he said.

In remarks to public TV station manag-ers in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 15, Powell said the commission “hasn't fined stuff that is close to the line,” taking action only when the material crosses over. Public TV pro-grams don't “come close to the sort of thing we attack,” he said, warning that the greater danger for pubcasters is self-censorship. If programs with “borderline content” are important, Powell added, “I'd say, 'Risk it' when it needs to be risked.”

”A Company of Soldiers” is a powerful film with or without the scattering of rough language, Atlas said. “I don't want anyone to get the impression that anyone has been forced to neuter a very powerful documentary.”

”I believe the program is totally defensible, but even if you win in the end, there can be an enormous expense to get there,” Atlas said. “I wish the FCC would make it clear how they feel about context.”

Last week, PBS and Frontline agreed to feed both edited and unedited versions of the March 1 debut broadcast of “A Soldier's Heart,” which explores the psychological costs of war. This time, Frontline did not ask stations to air the unedited version before 10 p.m.

Producers believed the five expletives in “A Soldier's Heart” were editorially justi-fied but would be “a shade more difficult to defend in an FCC case,” Wiley said.

”We're very pleased that 15 stations took the risk of airing 'A Company of Soldiers' at 9 p.m., but we've taken the considered and wise view that we can't ask them to take the risk two weeks in a row,” Wiley said. “That doesn't mean we won't ask them to do it in the future.”

Stations that aired the uncut version of “A Company of Soldiers” before the 10 p.m. safe harbor for indecent content were WGBH; WTTW in Chicago; South Carolina ETV; KCPT in Kansas City, Mo., WFUM in Flint, Mich.; Iowa PTV; WGTE in Toledo, Ohio; WMHT in Albany/Schenectady, N.Y.; WNED in Buffalo, N.Y.; KNME in Albuquerque, N.M.; WBGU, Bowling Green, Ohio; WGBY in Springfield, Mass.; KPBS in San Diego; Oregon Public Broadcasting; and KUHT in Houston.

Web page posted March 1, 2005
Copyright 2005 by Current Publishing Committee


FCC decisions left broadcasters wondering "What the #%@& is
off-limits now?"

A PBS slip-up in April 2004 made some pubcasters feel vulnerable.

In an earlier fuss over another WGBH show, an episode of Postcards from Buster, PBS and most stations took the cautious route, while WGBH and other stations risked criticism.


Indicating perhaps that PBS did not have to fear the four-letter words in "A Company of Soldiers," the FCC ruled that strong language in a battlefield movie is not indecent. The order (news release, nine-page full text and chairman's statement) rejected complaints about ABC's airing of Saving Private Ryan.




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