PBS's Lip-Reading Effort

Paula Kerger, new chief of PBS, says the FCC's restrictions and fines could put some stations out of business.
Paula Kerger, new chief of PBS, says the FCC's restrictions and fines could put some stations out of business. (By Frederick M. Brown -- Getty Images)
By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, July 27, 2006

PASADENA, Calif., July 26

The Federal Communications Commission's unclear edicts about language on television have paralyzed documentary filmmakers working for PBS, and its tenfold fine increase could put some PBS stations out of business, new Public Broadcasting Service chief Paula Kerger told TV critics Wednesday.

"We need to do a better job . . . letting the American people know that this is not just about Janet Jackson, that this is about filmmakers [who] have powerful stories that now are not being allowed to tell those stories on public television or on broadcast television," Kerger told critics at Summer TV Press Tour 2006.

PBS will file papers next week in support of KCSM, a small public-television station in Northern California that was hit with a $15,000 fine for rerunning before 10 p.m. an episode of the Martin Scorsese documentary "The Blues."

In the episode, musicians and the relative of a record industry executive use two words that the FCC has deemed unspeakable on the air between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

Unless spoken by actors playing World War II soldiers in big-budget flicks, preferably with Tom Hanks attached. Then it's cool, as the ABC stations that ran the network's unedited broadcast of "Saving Private Ryan" found out on Nov. 11, 2004, leaving the 66 stations that opted out because of FCC fine fears feeling pretty foolish.

Actual old musicians -- not so much. That explains why the FCC, in response to a single complaint about the rerun, slapped the fine on KCSM, which, PBS execs say, broadcasts no children's programming at any time. Which presumably means not too many children watch the station.

KCSM is appealing the fine. The FCC cannot fine TV networks, only stations. (Though when the commission fines only the CBS stations that are actually owned by CBS over the debut of Janet Jackson's right breast at a Super Bowl halftime show and not the CBS stations owned by other parties, as is the case with Washington's WUSA, someone might get the impression that maybe the commission is trying to spank the network.)

Continuing the federal government's tear on TV since Jackson's breast-unveiling in 2004, Congress recently upped the amount the FCC can fine TV stations by a factor of 10, to a max of $325,000 per word. That move is particularly onerous to PBS stations, Kerger told the gathered critics.

"It's a moving target . . . it's paralyzing," said Kerger, who hasn't been on the job five months but who has a long history with PBS, most recently as executive vice president of the parent company of WNET and WLIW in New York, two of the country's largest public TV stations.

"When you have stations whose operating budgets in some cases are only a couple million dollars, even, frankly, the old fines . . . were daunting. The fines now would put stations out of business," she said.

Since late May, PBS programs broadcast before 10 p.m. not only have had certain words bleeped out, but the speaker's mouth also has been pixelated. Nice touch on a documentary film.

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