The War: FCC-ucked

The governmental organization-through its ability to impose fines-forces TV stations to edit content regardless of its nature, be it fictional or historical.,The Federal Communications Comission poses a threat to artistic integrity and the faithful retelling of history.

The governmental organization-through its ability to impose fines-forces TV stations to edit content regardless of its nature, be it fictional or historical.

Nowhere has this agency’s absurd pettiness been more evident than in the flap over The War, an upcoming PBS documentary by esteemed filmmaker Ken Burns. Set to premier on Sept. 23, The War is a 14-hour epic about World War II, a conflict which claimed the lives of over 60 million people.

Co-directed and co-produced by Burns, a documentary on the subject should be a rich television experience. His 1990 film The Civil War is required viewing for history buffs, just as his Baseball is for understanding America’s pastime.

So what’s the controversy?

Soldiers, in the thick of the most deadly conflict in human history, swore. Sixty years later, some former soldiers used these obscenities in their recollections. Two versions of The War have been produced to avoid crippling fines from the FCC-one with the choice words bleeped out and the other uncensored.

The FCC didn’t mandate this, as they don’t pass judgment on a program before it airs. Instead, PBS chose to censor the documentary on its own and gave local affiliates the choice of airing the “clean” version before 10 p.m.

Smaller affiliates would be insane not to comply. The FCC’s standards of decency are hard to judge, making it difficult for stations to predict whether fines will be levied. And in 2006, Congress approved a tenfold increase in the amount of money the FCC could fine a station.

The maximum amount, now at $325,000, could devastate a smaller station.

The FCC gets its way without even having to levy a fine, and makes self-censorship the only viable option.

The story gets sillier when one considers the potentially indecent material. It is four words over the course of a 14-hour broadcast: two instances of the word “fuck” when the narrator explains the acronym “FUBAR” (fucked up beyond all recognition) which was popular among soldiers in WWII, one use of the phrase “holy shit” and one “asshole,” in the context of a former soldier describing his enemies on the battlefield.

Forget the fact that this is the way soldiers talked. The words are off limits before 10 p.m.

One might say PBS and its affiliates are overreacting-surely the Commission would not be shallow enough to impose fines for those four words in such a context. The FCC, however, is far too inconsistent. They allowed Steven Spielberg’s bloody Saving Private Ryan to air during peak hours without censoring realistic violence or language, but fined PBS for a few choice words during a broadcast of a Martin Scorsese-produced program about the blues-music which is rooted in despair.

Proponents of censorship, as usual, urge stations to comply.

“I don’t know why the stations wouldn’t just air the version without those words in it,” said Parents Television Council president Tim Winter in the San Francisco Chronicle.

“It’s hard to believe that removing four words are going to significantly damage the program.”

The chilling effect of the FCC’s fines results in stations censoring their own broadcasts out of fear. For PBS, caution is the only prudent choice.

Leave it to the FCC to have policies that make the buzz over an important new film premiere center around a handful of curse words instead of actual content. The agency has their way without having to lift a finger, which marks another loss for common sense and, yes, decency.