PASADENA, Calif. — Unclear federal rules for broadcast television decency standards are putting public TV stations at risk and threaten to deprive viewers of important programs, PBS President Paula Kerger said this week.
"The fines now would put stations out of business and we cannot allow that to happen," Kerger told a meeting of the Television Critics Association.
"We need to do a better job ... in letting the American people know that this is not just about Janet Jackson," she said on July 26. "This is about filmmakers that have powerful stories that now are not being allowed to tell those stories on public television or broadcast television."
Next week, PBS plans to file arguments in support of a Northern California public TV station that is appealing a $15,000 fine levied by the Federal Communications Commission over the airing of an episode of Martin Scorsese's music documentary "The Blues."
The program included interviews in which profanity was used and the FCC received a complaint from a viewer. The station, KCSM of San Mateo, is liable for the fine, not PBS, as is standard when fines are levied against broadcasters.
The federal benchmark for what is or isn't indecent is so vague that stations are put in danger of violating standards they don't realize exist, Kerger said.
"It's paralyzing," said Kerger, who has held the posts of president and chief executive officer for less than five months but has worked in public broadcasting for 13 years.
The FCC declined to comment on Kerger's remarks, said agency spokesman David Fiske.
Kerger noted the tenfold increase in federal fines per violation, from a maximum of $32,500 to as much as $325,000. The current furor over broadcast TV standards was fanned by the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS in which pop singer Jackson's breast was exposed during a song.
John F. Wilson, a fellow PBS executive, gave a vivid example of broadcasting's quandary: Scenes in which a character utters an epithet may be censored not only for sound but for picture, he said.
"We try to follow the zig or the zag here of the FCC ... we are now blurring lips when you can see plainly, to a reasonable person making this judgment, that you can tell what they're saying," Wilson said.
That action is being taken on the advice of PBS' lawyers, not at the direction of the FCC, "but we're taking that route."
Kerger called the visual alteration "just outrageous, when you think about it."
She's met with FCC commissioners in the past few weeks to discuss the decency issue and impress on them that "we are not talking about doing sensationalist work, we are not talking about doing salacious work, we are just trying to do good work."
She said she also hoped to get guidance she could relay to member stations about "what is appropriate and what is not appropriate" in the evening hours before 10 p.m. and what might be subject to fines, she said.
"I can't tell you, as I stand here today, that I still have a clear understanding," she said.
PBS is wary of what might befall an upcoming documentary on World War II by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. "The War" is scheduled to air in fall of 2007.
Those sharing their memories for such a film should be able to do so freely, even if FCC-banned epithets are involved, Kerger said. One suggested solution is to put "The War" on later at night, she said, but that would deprive some of the chance to see what Burns feels is his greatest work.
For now, the film is scheduled to air between 8 and 10 p.m., although the air date has yet to be announced. Alerting concerned viewers to its language content should be considered an adequate safeguard, Kerger said.
"They should have the opportunity not to watch something if it's going to be troubling," she said. "But for others, to be able to see a documentary and to be able to let a person tell their own story and not censor the words that are coming out of their mouth is tremendously important."