FCC fines ruffle even 'Masterpiece Theatre'

As Congress considers boosting indecency fines to as much as $500,000, even high-brow public TV treads warily.

A day before his documentary about a gritty Puerto Rican poet aired across the country, director Jonathan Robinson received a courtesy call with some bad news: His film would be sanitized for PBS's protection.

Network officials had decided to audibly bleep at least a dozen expletives in the April 6 broadcast of "Every Child Is a Poet: The Life & Work of Piri Thomas." Suddenly, parts of Mr. Robinson's serious drama sounded like a toddler playing with a touch-tone phone.

To Robinson, the transformation of his documentary is an ironic twist. Mr. Thomas's books, including the well-known "Down These Mean Streets," had been censored three decades ago for crude language. "It was like history repeating itself all over again," the director said.

Since Janet Jackson's revealing Super Bowl halftime show, The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has been clamping down on any broadcast material that could be considered offensive. From talk-radio to "Masterpiece Theatre," broadcasters are watching their backs as the FCC hammers out rules and regulations and Congress considers boosting maximum individual fines to $500,000.

For commercial television, which rakes in millions of dollars in ad sales, fines would almost be a slap on the wrist. For some public broadcasters who spend a significant amount of money on fundraising alone, however, one fine could be enough to pull the plug for good. As a result, public broadcasters nationwide are reluctantly entering a new era of self-censorship.

"Many public television stations and public radio stations have chosen to be much more conservative than they would have been in the past," says Margaret Miller, a Washington attorney who represents public broadcasters.

Most programming on public stations, of course, is as innocuous as "Sesame Street." But language often becomes explicit during TV documentaries and edgy radio shows. Bawdy British comedies, a staple on public television, are now being considered "problematic."

Explicit language is being routinely exorcised from documentaries, news reports, and respected shows like "Masterpiece Theatre." Last week, actor Richard Dreyfuss bitterly complained to a meeting of TV critics that vulgar words will be bleeped from a PBS drama, "Top Cop," that will star him in the fall.

But station officials say they simply can't afford the risk of a protracted court case or huge obscenity fine.

In San Diego, for example, TV station KPBS edited out obscenities from "The Cotton Club," a respected 1984 film by Francis Ford Coppola. "I know that doesn't sound very courageous," says station manager Doug Myrland, "but I have to think about our members' money."

This year, PBS bleeped expletives in the highly acclaimed British crime drama "Prime Suspect," and the San Diego station is carefully reconsidering its Saturday-night lineup of British sitcoms.

"They thrive on double entendre, and we're saying, 'Do we have to do something with those?' " Mr. Myrland asks. "We're worried that we're maybe on thin ice.' "

PBS's award-winning "Frontline" has come under scrutiny, and in San Diego, KPBS's sister radio station chose to not air obscenities uttered by US soldiers in Iraq. The KPBS radio station also looked into buying technology to delay live programming - such as news-oriented talk shows - as long as 40 seconds so any explicit language could be quickly edited out. But programmers found a backlog of orders for "profanity delay" systems from commercial radio stations.

To make thing more challenging, the FCC's recent decision to fine NBC over rocker Bono's utterance of a cuss during the Golden Globes suggests that officials are casting a wide net. PBS has since asked the FCC for clarification of the rules.

Yet even if public broadcasters comply with FCC standards, they still risk being hauled into court by the creators of the content. "It can be very sticky," says Ms. Miller, the attorney. "The copyright holder, the person who has put their creative energy into a particular work, has rights."

The prospect of a lawsuit didn't escape the attention of documentary producer Robinson, who considered legal action. He ultimately decided not to sue, but still winces over the dramatization of a racially charged argument between the teenaged poet and his brother being drowned out by digital chirps.

The poet Thomas "is very careful about how he's using language," he says. "If he'll use an expletive, he uses it to highlight emotions or the streets he came from, the reality of life, as opposed to a gratuitous use."

There are exceptions, however, to the new age of old taboos in public broadcasting. In Berkeley, Calif., KPFA-FM, the flagship of the left-leaning Pacifica Radio network, hasn't given in to pressure. A few weeks ago, the station offered a disclaimer before reporting on the now-famous four-letter word Vice President Dick Cheney used on the Senate floor.

And last month, station officials didn't think twice before airing a reading of the epic work "Ulysses" in conjunction with the 100th anniversary of the events depicted in the boldly explicit Irish novel, which was itself censored in the US in 1920.

"We weren't going to censor it even if we had to," says KPFA's Susan Stone. "We're certainly going to go to bat for James Joyce."

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