2/24/2005

War is heck

From Dana Stevens of Slate:
Since I live in the filthy-minded New York market, I got to see the unsanitized version of last night's controversial Frontline documentary, A Company of Soldiers (though even here, the show's broadcast time was pushed from 9 to 10 p.m. to avoid risking FCC indecency fines). I wonder which of the program's curse words were cut in those PBS markets that showed the "clean" version? Was it when the soldier said, "Holy crap!" upon seeing the massive hole left on the side of the road by a car bomb? When a commanding officer, realizing that an Iraqi civilian writhing in the back of a taxi is fatally wounded and beyond help, softly murmurs, "God damn it"? Then, after a Humvee explodes and one of men takes shrapnel to the ear, I guess they'd have to bleep out his panicked buddy yelling, "Pull fucking security!" What about the gunner discussing the death of two friends from his unit, who observes chillingly that, "My job is not to die for my country; my job is to make the other poor bastard die for his country"? Is the word "bastard" on the FCC list of naughty no-nos?
After watching the 90 grueling minutes of A Company of Soldiers, it's hard to believe that anyone would be more concerned with what the members of Dog Company in South Baghdad are saying than with what's actually happening to them. After watching the show, I spoke to David Fanning, Frontline's executive producer, about PBS's decision to reverse their usual policy of airing potentially offensive material on the nationwide "hard feed," while making a sanitized version available on demand to those local markets that preferred it. Last night, the default version of A Company of Soldiers—the one available on 300 out of the 350 PBS stations nationwide—was the expurgated one. But though Fanning sent out a memo last week protesting PBS's decision and stating that "this is the moment for public television to stand firm and broadcast 'A Company of Soldiers' intact," he says he understands the network's plight as well.
After all, he pointed out, if every PBS station had run the unedited version of A Company of Soldiers at 9 p.m. ET last night as scheduled, the potential fines across the country could have added up in the $90 million range. Under a new bill just passed by the House, the current cap of a maximum $27,500 fine per show could be increased to as much as $3 million per network per day. For the sake of comparison, the average episode of Frontline, Fanning estimates, costs around $400,000 to produce, and many local PBS stations operate on an annual budget of not much more than that. Michael Powell might not let you say these words in prime time, but the FCC has public television by the balls.
Bill Reed, the manager of KCPT, a PBS station in Kansas City that chose to run the program unedited in its original time slot and risk the fine, has compared the current broadcasting climate to the Red Scare of the 1950s: "You have to go back to the McCarthy era to get a feel for how far this has gone." When I asked Fanning if that was overstating the case, he grew thoughtful, saying, "A comparison is valid in that a minority of people have brought their values to bear on public standards." But Fanning was most worried about the intangible muzzling effect that the current climate of fear will have on producers of future shows, who are more likely to censor themselves in terms of program content. He cited a well-known 1985 episode of Frontline, Memory of the the Camps, which included never-before-seen footage from the liberation of German concentration camps in 1945. If that documentary were to air today, could images of nude prisoners fall under the FCC prohibition against "obscene, profane and indecent broadcasts"?
I asked Fanning if there was anything else viewers should know about the FCC's increasingly long shadow on the broadcast television landscape. He stressed the anachronistic quality of the commission itself: "We're trapped in an old structure here, of the regulation of broadcasting vs. the unregulatedness of cable." The current concern with obscenity in broadcasting, in Fanning's opinion, is "a surrogate for the larger cultural war ... a small group of outspoken voices are holding public TV hostage to these pressures from the Hill. It is so deeply contrary to what public broadcasting should be [...]. We have laws that don't allow the Voice of America in the US for a reason ... public broadcasting needs a funding mechanism that shields it from interference."
The Frontline documentary scheduled to air next week, The Soldier's Heart, an exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers returning from Iraq, also contains some strong language. In the preview screener I saw, one tormented vet, describing his fear of confiding in his fellow soldiers about his depression, wonders if he will be thought of as a "fucking pussy." Asked about the plans for that broadcast, Fanning said that those and other offending words were likely to be cut, though he felt that, like the language in A Company of Soldiers, they were context-appropriate. "We can't fight this battle every week," he sighed.

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