By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007
Ken Burns's upcoming PBS documentary "The War," which has weathered complaints from Latinos about their World War II contributions being represented, is now prompting responses from another group: managers of public TV stations.
The stations are concerned that four words of profanity in the 14 1/2 -hour documentary could subject them to hefty indecency fines from the Federal Communications Commission. Their worries have prompted Arlington-based PBS to take the unprecedented step of distributing two versions of "The War" for broadcast next month: Burns's original film and an FCC-friendly version from which the profanity has been removed.
Several stations, including WETA in Arlington and Maryland Public Television, say they will air both versions. WETA and MPT will carry the unedited "War" when the documentary begins its multi-night run during prime-time hours Sept. 23, and will switch to the "bleeped" version when they rebroadcast it during daytime hours the following weekend.
WHUT, operated by Howard University, will carried the scrubbed version only, a spokeswoman said.
WETA's decision is particularly notable given that the station is a co-producer of Burns's work. WETA and MPT offer the same rationale: Because children are more likely to be watching the film over the weekend, broadcasting "The War" with its profanities removed will respect community sensibilities and avert potential problems with the FCC.
"It's the world we live in right now," said Joe Bruns, WETA's chief operating officer. "My own view is that with the landscape of a 14-hour film about World War II, and given the overall obscenity of war, four words are not particularly shocking -- especially given the fact that these are words used routinely at that time. But [nowadays], we have to exercise an abundance of caution."
The profanity could subject a station to a $325,000 indecency fine if broadcast between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.
In two instances, the words are spoken by former American soldiers as they describe the meaning of the common military euphemisms "snafu" and "fubar," as well as some combat experiences. The other two words refer to a body part and excrement. In the edited version, the soundtrack briefly goes silent when the profanities are uttered.
In an interview, Burns called the soldiers' comments "four incredibly appropriate words." He added: "It's what soldiers in battle say, and not just during World War II."
But Burns said he agreed with PBS's decision to distribute two versions of the film, given the "understandable anxiety" among stations over the indecency issue.
"I could have said, 'I won't show this film [with the profanity removed].' But the whole point was to bear witness to what the reality of the Second World War was like, and that's what I want to share, with or without the bleeps."
The issue is more than just an artistic or historical question for Burns. His company, Florentine Films, has agreed to insure public TV stations for their legal costs in the event that the FCC opens an indecency proceeding against any of them for airing "The War." With 348 public stations likely to show the much-anticipated film, the company's financial risk could be enormous.
Recent FCC indecency decisions have left Burns and others in public television guessing about how the agency might rule. In perhaps the most relevant case, the FCC ruled in 2002 that Steven Spielberg's gritty World War II film "Saving Private Ryan" was not indecent when it aired on ABC stations. The FCC reaffirmed that opinion in 2005 after the movie -- which aired with multiple instances of profanity unbleeped -- was repeated on ABC. In those cases, the FCC considered the context of the speech, declaring that the language was neither "pandering, titillating or vulgar," given the depiction of intense combat.
Last year, though, the FCC levied a $15,000 fine against KCSM, a small public station in San Mateo, Calif., for airing an episode of "The Blues" that contained repeated profanities. The FCC ruled that the language in the Martin Scorsese-directed documentary about blues musicians was gratuitous.
A FCC spokesman said the agency doesn't prejudge any broadcast; he declined to comment further.
Public television executives say such cases have left them lacking a clear sense of what they can broadcast without facing fines.
"The core problem is, we don't really know what the FCC will do with a complaint because the guidelines aren't clear," PBS's chief content officer, John Boland, said yesterday. "We all feel as confident as we can feel under the circumstances with the 'Saving Private Ryan' decision. But I still think if you're a general manager of a station in a community somewhere in the U.S., you still have to think carefully about whatever jeopardy [airing an unbleeped 'War'] might cause you."