Did PBS Do the Right Thing?

PBS Ombudsman Michael Getler says he would have liked to see kids service PBS Sprout support freedom of expression by not firing Good Night Show host Melanie Martinez over the revelation that she had, seven years ago, made two parody videos on sexual alternatives that would keep a teenager a “technical” virgin.

In his weekly online column, Getler says that, of the 250 e-mails received, only one supported the firing. PBS had received about 1,700 by last week, only six of which supported the move, he said.

Getler thinks people see both sides of PBS Sprout's call. “I'm sure there are a lot of people out there who would have been very disappointed with PBS had this emerged differently and had PBS taken no action,” he wrote in his column Aug. 3, but “it would have been a greater bow to freedom of expression and against guilt by association for the program and PBS to stick by her.

“There was nothing illegal about what she had done,” he added. “It was not pornographic. These were 30-second spoofs never to be seen by preschoolers. They undoubtedly would shock rather than amuse many people. But that is true of half the stuff that's on TV these days, and these videos, as some viewers pointed out, could easily have appeared on something like Saturday Night Live on commercial broadcast television.”

Getler sees some inconsistency in noncommercial TV's fight against indecency crackdowns and its decision to can Martinez. “It struck me as ironic that, at the very time PBS is fighting against new Federal Communications Commission rulings about indecency that the network argues will inhibit documentary filmmakers and freedom of speech, it delivers a subjective punishment to a popular performer for something done seven years ago that was clearly a spoof. To me, it has too much of a whiff of after-the-fact loyalty oaths and purity checks on performers who do lots of different things.”

“PBS continues to support Sprout's position on the matter,” says Lee Sloan, PBS VP, communications, “and we disagree with the ombudsman's assessment.”

D.C. Digital Dispute

Gray Television is proceeding with plans to create a “zoned” edition of its ABC affiliate WHSV Harrisonburg, Va., with news for the Winchester, Va., area. Another ABC station opposes the move, saying that it violates a standard affiliation contract.

WHSV plans to use its digital multicast channel to repackage its ABC programming with local newscasts for Winchester and seek carriage for the channel.

It sought and received a market modification from the FCC to include the Winchester area in its DMA (Nielsen Designated Market Area), where it has been carried on cable systems for some 40 years, according to VP/General Counsel Bob Beizer. The FCC can modify a DMA, for must-carry purposes, to include areas where a station has been historically carried. The Nielsen DMA stays the same. And there's the rub: Winchester is partly in the Washington DMA.

Stations there, led by Allbritton's WJLA, fought the modification, and the company says WHSV may air the newscast on those systems but should have to delete all the ABC programming. Its affiliation contract, Allbritton contends, prevents a station from delivering any ABC programming outside its DMA.

Beizer concedes that ABC tightened up its contracts a couple of years ago and treats historical-carriage requests on a case-by-case basis. But he says the FCC decision clears the way and Gray's plans are on track. “We have all necessary rights to continue to do what we have been doing there,” he says, “which is carriage of our programming, including ABC programming, in the Winchester area.”

When WJLA discovered the double carriage—Allbritton Senior VP Jerald Fritz says it was six or eight months ago—Allbritton asked ABC to weigh in and prevent the retransmission into the Washington DMA, as the network has done in some similar circumstances, according to Fritz.

ABC asked Gray to stop, Fritz says, but Gray instead filed the request for modification. Fritz says ABC has again asked Gray to stop the retransmissions. Beizer says that letter simply asked for more information on the dispute.

ABC's top Washington executive, Preston Padden, says the network held meetings on the dispute last week but he has no comment on the letters, the two station's differing takes on the letters or how the FCC decision affected the affiliation contracts.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.