FCC 'Whitewashing' Blues, Says Scorsese

Producer-director Martin Scorsese told the FCC Friday that profanity was integral to the language of his TV documentary and that to censor it would "strip the documentary of its essential authenticity and historical accuracy."

Saying it reflected his "deep concern over the adverse impact" the FCC's fining of his Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues PBS series would have on "the creative process generally and, more specifically, on the ability and willingness of filmmakers to produce authentic documentaries and other valuable programming for presentation on broadcast television," Scorsese Friday weighed into the TV indecency fight.

It came in the form of a sworn statement, part of a massive filing to the FCC by the San Mateo Community College District, licensee of KCSM-TV San Mateo, Calif. (San Francisco).

Coincidentally, Scorsese's defense came the same day that Patrick Maines, head of the medai company-back Washington First Amendment think tank, The Media Institute, called for Hollywood, among others, to step up and make themselves heard on the issue of indecency (Maines call in full can be accessed on the B&C Web site at http://www.broadcastingcable.com/article/CA6332444.html?display=Breaking+News.

KCSM-TV was one of the stations fined for profanity in the FCC's March release of almost a dozen proposed indecency findings against TV stations for sex and language. The station challenged the $15,000 fine, saying it was unconstitutional and calling into question the underpinnings of indecency regulation in general.

Scorsese was specifically defending the Godfathers and Sons installment of his series, directed by Marc Levin, whose broadcast on KCSM was fined for its use of the f- and s-words.

"The language of blues musicians often was filled with expletives that shocked and challenged America's white dominated society of the forties, fifties and sixties," he told the commission.

"To accurately capture the essential character of the blues music and the subculture in which it originated and flourished, it was important to preserve in the film the actual speech and discursive formations of the participants," he said. To do otherwise, would be "'whitewashing' the blues."

Scorsese also objected to relegating the show to the 10 p.m.-6 a.m. hours during which profanity and adult sexuality are protected from FCC fines. "Our mutual artistic objective of broadly sharing an accurate depiction of one of the few uniquely American art forms will be severely undermined if the Commission limits broadcast of the film to hours when viewership is lowest," he argued.

If the FCC fine stands, he warned, "it will produce a chilling effect on similar creative enterprises, depriving the American public of valuable educational programming."

The networks and their station groups have filed suit against the FCC over some of its indecency findings for profanity, saying they are unconstitutional.

CBS-owned stations have also challenged their fine for an episode of Without a Trace, saying the FCC was straying into content calls it had no business making and was magnifying the online "heckling" of groups like the Parent's Television Council, which files huge numbers of indecency complaints, into a mandate for content regulation.

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.