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Wiley with "Frontline" editor Wiley in Frontline editing suite.

Censorship at work

We’ll do it to our programs in the editing room: removing even traces of forbidden language

If strong language accompanies strong documentary content, as it sometimes does, WGBH’s Frontline would be frequently affected by the FCC’s war on bad words. Indeed, it already has been. This commentary reflects the personal views of the program’s executive editor.

Originally published in Current, July 17, 2006
By Louis Wiley Jr.

The title of a recent e-mail from PBS caught my eye: “Editing of Coarse Language/New Practices.” Henceforth, producers would face two new requirements: (1) if a word is bleeped or wiped (silenced), the entirety of the word must be bleeped or wiped, meaning that “mother-F-word” would now have to be “bleep bleep,” and (2) if the F-word or the S-word were uttered to camera so that viewers could recognize it from the speaker’s mouth, the lips must be pixelated.

My first reaction? If public broadcasting begins to pixelate lips, such scenes would become excellent fodder for Leno, Letterman, Stewart and others — and for some viewers, the sight is bound to introduce humor in scenes where that is entirely inappropriate and distracting.

My next thought? If public television producers are forced to not only bleep words but also to pixelate lips, most will simply cut the scenes, no matter how powerful or relevant, rather than see them turned into a joke.

What’s behind these new rules? It strikes me that PBS’s lawyers are merely reflecting rising broadcaster fears of another F-word — the FCC. The commission has been revving up its “war on indecency” and now has a new congressional mandate that increases the maximum fine for broadcasters by a factor of 10, from $32,500 to $325,000 per utterance. What this means for public broadcasting is pretty simple: more self-censorship by producers.

You may recall that in early 2005 Frontline was preparing “A Company of Soldiers,” a portrait of an infantry company at war in Iraq.

When the Army unit was hit by an explosive device, soldiers used the F-word six times in one clip.

Frontline’s editorial judgment was that soldiers’ use of the F-word in this context was appropriate, that you cannot pretty up war by bleeping the heartfelt emotional outbursts of soldiers in the heat of battle. Removing the scene would be worse — downplaying their personal jeopardy and the commitment to duty that put them at risk. But legal considerations sometimes must take priority over editorial choices.

Under FCC rules at the time, the maximum fine could have been $32,500 per utterance, multiplied by the number of stations. The total theoretical maximum fine, if someone in the country had complained to the commission, would have been $195,000 times the 180 stations carrying the program, for a grand total of $35.1 million.

With the newly increased maxium fine, the penalty for multiple utterances on multiple PBS stations could amount to far more, even with the new $3 million cap per station.

At the time, no one at WGBH really believed that there would be complaints about soldiers using the F-word in the heat of battle, and if there had been, no one thought the FCC would find for the complainers, but even a theoretical maximum fine of $35 million was enough to cause a bit of a chill.

In the end, 14 stations ran the unedited version at 9 p.m. exposing themselves to some legal risk. There were no complaints.

Regrettably, the very week after Frontline stood up, we had to sit back down. We had another program on Iraq, “The Soldier’s Heart,” which recounted the stories of several soldiers who suffered from psychological problems while in Iraq or after returning home. At one point, a Gulf War veteran who now works with veterans advocacy groups told us why a soldier in the field was reluctant to ask for help. The veteran says the military “called (the soldier) a f-ing pussy—that he was a pussy because he couldn’t go out and fight.”

Frontline choose to bleep the F-word. The veteran was not speaking in the heat of battle, as the men did in “A Company of Soldiers.” And we were reluctant to ask stations to take a legal risk two weeks in a row.

You may be wondering about the word “pussy.” Ugly as the expression is, we felt it was absolutely necessary to convey the way a soldier seeking help was made to feel—accused of being unmanly or weak. If we had bleeped both words, the viewer would have had no idea of the emotional impact of what the soldier was called. But I can share with you the news that, yes, a complaint has been filed with the FCC for use of the P-word.

In Frontline’s  May 2005 film “The New Asylums,” a rare inside look at how mentally ill prisoners are treated, there is one scene in which an inmate is being escorted back to his cell. He shouts expletives, including the F-word, at the guard practically the whole way.

I argued that the expletives helped establish the sense of danger to the guards and extreme nature of the prisoner’s mental condition. I thought they were necessary for viewers to understand the reality of a situation that resembles a war zone in some respects. I lost the argument because multiple uses of expletives can have the effect of multiplying the fine if a complaint is upheld. So we bleeped the prisoner’s words. If we were editing the film now and had to pixelize the prisoner’s lips, I wonder if the scene wouldn’t just be cut out, diminishing the power of the film and its authenticity.

Sometimes we engage in absurd contortions to deal with indecency concerns. In “Country Boys,” a special six-hour film chronicling the coming of age of two teenage boys in Kentucky, we faced the problem that (surprise!) teenagers sometimes curse. I think “bullsh-t” was one of their favorites. But because the broadcast ran from 9 to 11 p.m. each night for three nights, we found ourselves deciding that the boys wouldn’t swear audibly between 9 and 10 (we wiped words out) but after 10 they would do so occasionally to reflect the reality of their world.

A few strong words are not the only thing that may leave the air. Entire topics may be off-limits. Today, it is unlikely that even a heavily edited version of Frontline’s powerful investigation of the porn industry, “American Porn” (2002), could be repeated at 9 p.m.

The FCC’s indecency campaign is also hitting producers of cultural and history programs, including WGBH’s American Experience, Masterpiece Theatre, Mystery and even Antiques Roadshow.

The Roadshow? Well, what would you do about a nude photo of Marilyn Monroe estimated to be worth more than $20,000? Pixelate it? Edit it out? Risk showing a frontal view briefly? WGBH decided to risk a complaint and the legal expense of defending the editorial decision to show the photo. The nudity was an essential part of its collectible value and showing it was not in a sexual context.

Being on public TV won’t get these programs off the hook. Based on a single complaint, a small public station in California was fined $15,000 for rebroadcasting an episode of The Blues before 10 p.m. In that program, musicians and the son of the famous record producer who published them, use the F-word, the M-f word and the S-word. The station felt the words were a valid part of the music culture being portrayed and were in no way sexual in nature. But the FCC disagreed. The station, KCSM in San Mateo, is appealing.

Even if the station wins the case, public broadcasting lacks the wherewithal to fight a protracted war. Appealing to the commission can cost up to $50,000. Taking the case to court can run up a bill of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What is happening behind the scenes is self-censorship, or what I believe is really indirect government censorship. And that is precisely the problem. Editorial decisions that filmmakers, producers and station managers should make with due regard to their standards and those of their local communities are more and more being shaped by fear of a government agency.

Given the confusing twists and turns of recent FCC indecency precedents, the self-censorship often may go far beyond what the FCC would have demanded or Congress intended. If the indecency rules are not found to be unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds, station managers and top executives will have to err more and more on the side of caution. And caution is contagious.

Filmmakers, producers and editors will start a censoring process in their minds early on (many of them strongly object to distracting bleeps and pixelations), and the net effect over time will be to reduce the power of some of the strongest programs on public television. Viewers are unlikely to know what has been cut out.

It was former FCC Chairman Michael Powell who warned broadcasters about the direction of the indecency war. “The danger,” he said, “is in self-censorship.” It is no longer just a danger in my view. The reality is here.

One cannot be surprised by politicians’ headlong rush to declare themselves opposed to indecency, especially in an election year. But if public broadcasting tries to make all of its programs safe for the one-third of TV households that have children under 18 (and some of our programs are inappropriate for young children, even with bleeps and blurs), we are in danger of doing a disservice to our adult audience.

Adults hope and expect to find powerful drama, history and public affairs documentaries that have not been sanitized of words and scenes that speak to the truth of life. All public television producers should share a concern that strong language or sexual material or violence (unregulated for now) must be used responsibly and only as necessary to understand the matter at hand or to reflect the world as it is, not as one wishes it to be. Such material can be used for proper editorial purposes. It can enhance the power of our communications and in doing so help fulfill our broad educational mission.

Sadly, public broadcasters have said too little about the danger. The consequence of the government’s assault on what it deems wayward commercial enterprises is to make public media pay a steep price in editorial freedom. We are becoming collateral damage in the war on indecency.  

Louis Wiley Jr. is a graduate of Yale University and Georgetown Law School. Since joining Boston’s WGBH in 1970 he has worked on local and national public affairs, history and cultural programs and occasionally served as an unofficial advisor on controversial matters.

Wiley’s primary duties as executive editor for the public affairs documentary series Frontline are monitoring story selection, conducting an editorial review of each program and assessing matters that may affect the series’ editorial integrity. At management’s request, Wiley drafted two documents for the station: Guidelines on Journalistic Standards and Practices for National Programming and a Web Code of Best Practices.

Web page posted July 18, 2006
The newspaper about public TV and radio
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Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2006


What the #%@& is off-limits now? April 2004

Frontline tests FCC's notion of indecency. Does the FCC care if soldiers swear? February 2005

Blues doc brings San Mateo station viewer acclaim, FCC fine, March 2006.

PBS hopes bleeps and blurred lips can keep FCC fines at bay, June 2006.


Timeline of developments in indecency battle.


Watch Frontline online: A Company of Soldiers, The New Asylums.

FCC's web page about obscenity, indecency and profanity.

Twenty-five points earns you a Doctor of Indecency degree. Take the indecency quiz (PowerPoint file), prepared by comm attorney John Crigler of Garvey Schubert & Barer. Link thanks to NFCB.

"If public broadcasting tries to make all of its programs safe for the one-third of households that have children under 18, we are in danger of doing a disservice to our adult audience."

Indecency’s winding road

July 3, 1978
FCC v. Pacifica Foundation: The Supreme Court upheld the FCC’s right to ban indecent speech when children could be expected to be in the audience. Pacifica’s WBAI in New York had aired George Carlin’s “Filthy Words” monologue in the afternoon of Oct. 30, 1973. Upshot: Confirmed both the FCC’s right to regulate indecent language and its definition of such speech as that which depicts “sexual or excretory activities or organs in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium.” Indecent material falls short of obscenities, which are banned at all hours.

Aug. 28, 1995
“Safe harbor” for grownup material:
New FCC indecency rules take effect, prompted by court decisions, establishing a “safe harbor” of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. local time, when children are presumably asleep and indecent material may be broadcast. Before 10, in the family-friendly zone, the FCC bans broadcast of obscene, profane or indecent material.

Feb. 1, 2004
Janet Jackson’s peep show: Michael Powell, FCC chairman at the time, had already begun a campaign to clean up the airwaves and Jackson’s exposed breast immediately became exhibit A in the effort. Upshot: Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” in the Super Bowl halftime show made broadcast indecency a front-page issue and spurred a huge jump in public complaints to the FCC, many generated by activist groups—more than 1.4 million in 2004, compared with fewer than 167,000 in 2003. It also fueled congressional efforts to raise FCC fine levels. CBS was fined $550,000 for the broadcast.

March 18, 2004
Bono reversal: The commissioners determined that the rocker’s salty comment during a live Golden Globe Awards broadcast—“this is really, really fucking brilliant”—was indecent after all. They overruled a 2003 decision by the FCC’s enforcement bureau that said Bono’s remark was not indecent because it was fleeting and did not refer to sex. Instead, the commissioners said the F-word “invariably invokes a coarse sexual image” and that a 1987 decision excusing “isolated or fleeting” utterances was “no longer good law.” Upshot: The F-word is effectively banned from family-friendly broadcast hours, regardless of context or intended meaning, and suddenly even the slightest profane slip-up could be costly.

Feb. 28, 2005
Backpedaling for men at war:
The commissioners denied complaints from parent groups about ABC’s uncensored Nov. 11, 2004, primetime broadcast of the World War II movie Saving Private Ryan, in part because editing the film’s profanity would have “diminished the power, realism and immediacy of the film experience for viewers.” Upshot: The FCC appeared to re-emphasize the importance of context in potential indecency cases and suggested dirty words could be acceptable in responsible, artistic works.

March 15, 2006
Another crackdown on trash-talking music people: After okaying Saving Private Ryan’s profanity in the name of preserving realism, the FCC fined small pubTV station KCSM in San Mateo, Calif., for dirty words in a documentary series, The Blues. The $15,000 fine was one of the smallest in a $4 million omnibus order aimed mainly at commercial TV shows. The FCC also decreed that, like the F-word (see Golden Globes, above), “shit” was presumptively indecent because of its “inherently excretory connotation.” Upshot: System leaders and producers, who thought the Private Ryan decision would protect pubTV docs, are again unsure about what is acceptable. In May, PBS ordered producers to pixelate onscreen cursing mouths. KCSM is appealing its fine.

June 15, 2006
President Bush signs bill multiplying the maximum fine to $325,000 per utterance: The commission can levy the max for multiple indecent utterances—though it hasn’t traditionally done this. Upshot: No one can predict what the FCC will or won’t fine, and the stakes just became much, much higher. One bad word could result in a fatal financial blow for a public TV station, though the FCC takes a broadcaster’s ability to pay into consideration in its judgments.
—Jeremy Egner 


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