PBS Edits Swearing Soldiers

At press time, at least 33 noncommercial stations were planning to run the version of a war documentary that PBS had declined to widely distribute.

PBS decided to err on the side of caution and effectively edit out the "F-words" and "S-words" from "A Company of Soldiers," a Frontline documentary on the Iraq war that airs Tuesday, Feb. 22, for all but consenting stations.

At least 16 stations have asked for the unedited version.

The noncom service was getting some grief from the show's producers at WGBH Boston. They supplied PBS with both edited and unedited versions, but wanted PBS to distribute the one with swearing intact as a signal to the FCC.

But PBS says that stations have asked that in such cases the service err on the side of caution, according to PBS, and spokeswoman Lea Sloan says that given the potential for a big indecency fine, it was the responsible thing to do.

Ever since the FCC reversed itself and ruled that a fleeting, adjectival F-word from singer Bono at the Golden Globes was indecent, broadcasters have been understandably concerned about getting fined for language.

F-words in a broadcast about soldiers evokes the flap over Saving Private Ryan, when some 60-plus ABC affiliates chose not to air the war movie for fear of FCC reprisal over the gritty language. There was none, even under the commission's s new, more restrictive, view of indecent language, but PBS wasn't taking chances, or more accurately, was putting the onus on stations.

PBS decided to hard-feed the edited version of the doc, and make the other available on request. Anyone who takes the feed must sign a waiver indemnifying PBS against any FCC repercussions.

Frontline producers argue there should be no repercussions, and were not happy with the decision, saying they had hoped PBS would feed it unedited as a signal to the FCC.

"We believe what is at issue is not the particulars of this case, but the principle of editorial independence," said the producers in a statement. "Because overreaching by the FCC is at its heart a First Amendment issue, all programs are at risk, whether art, science, history, culture, or public affairs."

They also said they had run the show by their attorneys, who advised that the language should pass muster with the commission given the FCC's lack of an indecency finding against the stations that aired Private Ryan.

Among the stations asking for the unedited show were PBS' anchor producers, including originator WGBH, KCET Los Angeles, WNET New York, WETA Washington, as well as KCTS Seattle, and WMFE Orlando.

KCTS Program Manager Eric Maki said the language in the intense battle scenes "seems appropriate for the context of the story." Maki said KCTS signed the waiver, but arguably it didn't need to, since it normally airs the show at 10 p.m., the beginning of the FCC's indecency safe harbor. PBS feeds the show at 9.

WMFE Orlando also will air the unedited version at 10 p.m. Since that is in the safe harbor, it was perhaps an easier decision than those who normally air it at nine, when PBS feeds it, said Mike Crane, VP, programming. Crane said the station trusted Frontline's advisory that the language was appropriate in context, saying the station is generally careful of doing things outside of safe harbor.

According to a source, at least one station was planning to air the edited version in prime and the un-edited at 10 p.m.

PBS tried providing dual hard feeds of potentially problematic shows in the immediate post-Janet Jackson era. That apparently ended after a February 2004 re-airing of The Gin Game. It starred Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore, but was not Rob and Laura-like fare (it is an adult drama about rage, regret and lost opportunity).

Some stations aired the wrong feed, and when the first F-word flew from Van Dyke, PBS concluded that was not the way to go.

This is WGBH's second dust-up with PBS in the past three weeks. It also went ahead with its airing of a Postcards from Buster episode, which it also produces, after PBS declined to distribute the episode due to concerns over lesbian-led families depicted in the show.

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.