Linguistic Hygiene: PBS toughens policy on cursing in its shows

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Jun 18 12:56:24 UTC 2006

>>From the Boston Globe:

PBS toughens policy on cursing in its shows
By Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff  |  June 17, 2006

If there's a bellwether of how new federal regulations will affect
television, it may be this: PBS is changing its rules about swearing. In
the wake of a series of fines imposed by the FCC this spring -- and in
advance of a law signed this week, increasing by tenfold the cost of
future fines -- PBS has sent a new set of guidelines to documentary
producers. In shows that air before 10 p.m., compound words that are part
obscenity, which used to be only partially bleeped, now must be bleeped in
full. And if it's still possible to discern the word by reading a person's
lips, his mouth must be digitally blurred.

That this is a delicate subject to describe in a daily newspaper is a sign
that self-censorship does exist. PBS officials and filmmakers say they've
long taken care to ensure that their shows don't use swear words
gratuitously. But cursing is sometimes necessary, in service of the truth,
said Ken Burns , the veteran documentarian who created the PBS epics ``The
Civil War," ``Baseball," and ``Jazz." (In the latter series, which aired
in 2001, musicians used an obscenity that, Burns says, was ``part of the
vocabulary and language of jazz.")

``This is part of the stuff of life, and we're charged in public
television with capturing that," Burns said in a telephone interview this
week. ``The War," his seven-part series on World War II, due to air on PBS
in September 2007, will also include violent images and some swear words,
which stations can choose to bleep or leave alone, he said. ``I just don't
want a bureaucrat somewhere, who has no aesthetic sense or no emotional
investment, to suddenly start applying some rudimentary rule that maybe
was applied to a video game," Burns said. ``Somewhere along the line,
we're going to have to draw the line and say, `That's enough.' "

Advocates of greater FCC regulation say filmmakers like Burns
shouldn't worry. The FCC has said it takes context into account when it
reviews indecency complaints, said Melissa Caldwell ,senior director of
research at the Parents Television Council, an advocacy group that helps
viewers file complaints, and claims some credit for prompting the higher
fines. ``As long as the people that are producing these documentaries
aren't setting out with the intention of shocking and provoking and
pushing the content envelope, they're going to be fine," Caldwell said.

But some broadcasters say recent FCC rulings have been arbitrary and
confounding. In March, the FCC proposed a $15,000 fine on a community
college public television station in San Mateo, Calif., for airing a
Martin Scorsese-produced documentary on the blues that contained some
swear words. But in an earlier ruling, the FCC decided not to impose fines
on stations that aired ``Saving Private Ryan," a fictional film that was
laced with obscenities. And PBS officials say they're especially concerned
because of the Broadcast Indecency Act, which President Bush signed on
Thursday. The law increases the FCC's maximum fine -- imposed on stations
that air shows deemed indecent -- from $32,500 to $325,000. The
regulations don't apply to cable stations.

``A $325,000 fine to a single public television station could potentially
mean that it would go into Chapter 11," said Lea Sloan , PBS's vice
president of communications. ``So while we attempt to navigate this
changing landscape of what indecency is or isn't, we feel as if we need to
be prudent in our approach with our stations." Still, it's unclear how
directors and producers will handle the new guidelines. Boston's WGBH, a
public television station that produces the documentary series ``American
Experience" and ``Frontline," won't take swear words out of films if
they're needed for authenticity, said Margaret Drain , WGBH's vice
president for national productions.

Instead, she said, WGBH will continue to offer two versions of its shows
to other PBS stations: one with obscenities included, and one with them
bleeped. ``It does mean taking risk on the part of WGBH," Drain said.
``But we feel strongly that there are certain instances that could warrant
the use of language that, taken in context, could not possibly be deemed
offensive or obscene."

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss at

More information about the Lgpolicy-list mailing list