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The Nation

PBS Under Fire for Editing Iraq War Documentary

In another dispute about programming, the producers of a 'Frontline' show say the broadcaster overreacted out of fear of the FCC.

February 18, 2005|Scott Collins | Times Staff Writer

PBS, the public broadcaster caught in the middle of the nation's culture wars, is entangled in another programming controversy.

The producers of a "Frontline" documentary about U.S. combat troops in Iraq on Thursday criticized a PBS decision to send member stations an edited satellite feed of the program that cut out profanity used by soldiers.

Boston station WGBH, which produced "A Company of Soldiers," a 90-minute "Frontline" documentary set to air Tuesday on many of PBS' 349 affiliates, argued in a statement that PBS overreacted out of concern about Federal Communications Commission indecency rules.

This is the second time this year that the Public Broadcasting Service has tangled over programming with WGBH, a major program supplier to public TV stations nationwide.

Last month, PBS heeded the concerns of conservative member stations when it declined to distribute an episode of the children's show "Postcards from Buster" that featured real-life lesbian mothers.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings also sent PBS a letter questioning whether federal funds should be used to support such programming. WGBH, which produces the "Buster" series, offered to make the episode available to any station that wanted it.

The new dust-up involves profanity by U.S. soldiers interviewed by "Frontline," a documentary series that offers in-depth looks at various topics. According to David Fanning, the creator and executive producer, and executives at four public stations, PBS has opted to change traditional practice by broadcasting an edited version of the documentary.

Fanning said "Frontline" had typically made cleaned-up versions of documentaries with potentially objectionable content. But in the past, PBS has chosen to air the original version as its primary feed, he said.

An unedited version of the "Frontline" show will be available through a secondary feed. Getting that, however, will be somewhat inconvenient.

Stations will have to tape the program in advance and broadcast it later, rather than show it directly from the satellite, managers say.

PBS, a private nonprofit media enterprise, has also taken the highly unusual step of demanding that stations showing the unedited version sign a legal waiver indemnifying PBS and the producers in the event of any fines or legal actions.

The agreement specifies that the station will broadcast the unedited program at its "own legal and financial risk," according to a copy of the waiver obtained by The Times.

PBS spokeswoman Lea Sloan confirmed that the public broadcaster had sent the waiver forms but declined to comment further, saying that the document was self-explanatory.

The latest controversy comes at a time of growing uncertainty for PBS. This week, PBS President Pat Mitchell said she would not remain in her job beyond the end of her contract in 2006.

Indecency has been hotly debated in the television industry since Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl halftime show last year.

The FCC has promised to impose stiff fines on broadcasters who violate the rules (CBS is appealing a $550,000 fine related to the Jackson incident.) Last fall, more than 60 ABC affiliates elected not to air the film "Saving Private Ryan" because of its strong language.

PBS, which comes under FCC guidelines because it broadcasts over public airwaves, has to be particularly careful, station managers say, because it is essentially a loose federation of member stations, each of which has limited resources and depends heavily on financial support from local communities.

While mindful of local pressures, the "Frontline" producers argue that PBS is missing an opportunity to stand up for an important principle.

The public broadcaster should "stand firm" for the "principle of editorial independence," the producers wrote in a statement to general managers, program directors and communication directors. "Editorial decisions should be free of influence by the government."

In an interview, Fanning emphasized that his complaint was less with PBS than the FCC, which he said had sent confusing signals on the subject of indecency. "It's important to draw a line in the sand sometimes," he said. "We should get a better definition of what's acceptable" under the FCC guidelines.

Asked about the producers' statement, PBS spokeswoman Sloan demurred, saying, "I know almost nothing about this." She did not return subsequent phone calls and e-mails seeking comment.

Some PBS member stations said they would air the program after 10 p.m., when children were presumably not watching.

In Los Angeles, KCET will air the edited version at 9 p.m. Tuesday, but viewers who want to see the original broadcast will have the chance to do so at 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 26, according to spokeswoman Laurel Lambert.

KPBS in San Diego will air the unedited show at 10 p.m. Tuesday, according to General Manager Doug Myrland.

Stations in other markets are taking a more conservative approach.

Executives at Mississippi Public Broadcasting and at WKNO in Memphis, Tenn., said they would show only the cleaned-up version of "A Company of Soldiers."

"It's something we actually appreciate," Mississippi Public Broadcasting Executive Director Marie Antoon said of PBS' decision. "We have had [viewer] complaints sent to the FCC because of PBS material."

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