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PBS To Revisit Stricter Profanity Policy

New PBS President-CEO Paula Kerger, grilled about the indecency issue during most of her first session Wednesday at the Television Critics Assn. press tour, said that she and Senior Programming VP John Wilson will revisit their recently announced new programmer guidelines for editing out profanity.

On May 31, PBS informed public stations that rather than just bleeping offensive words in shows airing prior to 10 p.m., producers would now be required to digitally obscure foul language when it is clear to viewers what the person is saying. In addition, they would also have to bleep compound phrases containing certain words in their entirety rather than just the offending word, as in the past.

Indecent speech is protected from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The FCC, in finding that pixelating video is not necessarily enough to protect a broadcaster from indecency fines if the pixelated part is obvious, seemed to suggest that bleeping might also be insufficient if the lips can be read and the word is obvious. But Kerger and Wilson, referring to the FCC's assertion that it is still taking context into account, are now indicating that they may seek to revise the strict guidelines that producers have roundly criticized.

Kerger complained that she had come away from recent meetings with four of the five FCC commissioners with “no clear guidance” on how to proceed, a sentiment shared by many broadcasters, commercial and noncommercial alike.

“They think that they are communicating [their indecency policy] clearly to all broadcasters about what the standards should be,” she said of the commission. “My point is that we don’t have the resources to figure out what they’re thinking.”

During her session, Kerger cited widespread station concern about Ken Burns' new fall 2007 PBS documentary about World War II, The War, which contains some salty language, including words for which stations have been previously fined, as well as graphic violence, which the FCC does not regulate.

The FCC found that cussing in Saving Private Ryan, a fictional theatrical movie, was not indecenct, but that swearing in a PBS blues documentary was, which is part of PBS', and other's, confusion.

PBS will offer the documentary between 8 and 10 p.m. but public stations will have the option of airing it after 10 p.m.

“Stations are concerned that if they broadcast this program they will get hit with fines,” Kerger says.

She pointed out that many public broadcasters are concerned about having to dish out $325,000 in penalties for airing the documentary, particularly when their entire annual program budgets are only a couple million dollars. The FCC last month raised the indecency fine maximum from $32,500 to $325,000.

Of her recent meetings with the FCC commissioners, Kerger said:, “No one is giving an ironclad guarantee” that there won’t be fines. But PBS does not intend to “roll over” on the indecency issue, Kerger said.

PBS is filing a brief in support of pubcaster KCSM San Mateo, Calif., which is appealing a $15,000 fine over profanity in Martin Scorcase’s The Blues.

Since the FCC rulings, PBS has broadcast some of the offensive words, which Kerger says PBS continues to look at on a case by case basis. --John Eggerton contributed to this report.