Many stations nix or delay film
about black gay men

Originally published in Current, June 24, 1991
By Jack Robertiello

Frequent use of the word "fuck," a drawing of a penis and a scene showing two kissing men will keep an award-winning documentary about gay black men off the air at many public television stations.

At least 17 major stations have opted not to air Tongues Untied, a part of the P.O.V. series scheduled to run the week of July 18. The P.O.V. staff's informal poll, conducted early this month after a Florida newspaper named some of those stations, found 17 major-market stations that planned to ax Tongues.

P.O.V. Executive Producer Marc Weiss said of 50 stations polled, 29 planned to carry the episode and three were not certain. Of the 29 stations intending to air the episode, 11 would air the show later in the evening than originally scheduled. Representatives at 18 stations told P.O.V. staffers they intended to air the program at the scheduled time. One of the stations has no plans to carry the series, now in its fourth season, which sets out to expose the public to diverse viewpoints.

"Extremely offensive"

"The very nature of the content is such that it would be considered as extremely offensive in terms of community standards here," said Jim Lewis, v.p. and director of programming of KPTS-TV in Wichita, Kan. "There is a graphic display of actions and language so pervasive and structurally part of the film" that no editing would allow him to air it, Lewis said. KPTS designs its schedule for children and family audiences. "This is not the Bible Belt, but our viewers would take great offense at the graphic public display of homosexual activity and the constant use of words that describe sexual and excretory behavior."

David Welsh, director of broadcasting at KCPT in Kansas City, which has rejected Tongues, said the problem was strictly of language. "It's not the fact that this program has gay black men as subject matter. When a program contains language that we don't knowingly schedule, we won't air that program. To be more specific, the 'F' word is not a word that we schedule." The drawings of male genitals and scenes of men kissing are "shocking," Welsh said, but KCPT would air the program if the "fucks" were excised; no other changes would be necessary.

The producers will not offer an edited version, according to PBS.

Weiss said he doubted any additional stations have nixed the program, "although some might have added it," he said.

Stations not airing the program include a member of the consortium that presents the series, South Carolina ETV, and Oregon Public Broadcasting, WPTD in Dayton, KRMA in Denver, KUHT in Houston, WKNO in Memphis, WMVS in Milwaukee, WHRO in Norfolk and KETA in Oklahoma City.

"Let audiences decide"

The program has aired three times at WNET-TV in New York, and at KCET-TV in Los Angeles and KQED-TV in San Francisco. WNET received both complaints and support for airing it, said Harry Chancey, senior v.p. for programming, but he said "the film satisfies the criteria of excellence" set for P.O.V. The film's themes and content put it "squarely on the public television agenda." Stations should "let audiences exercise their own intelligence and not exercise it for them." But he acknowledges regional differences in attitudes may make some programs unsuitable in some places.

Stations routinely move or reject programs for reasons having to do with their local markets. PBS "respects local judgments about taste and appropriateness," said Executive Vice President Jennifer Lawson. Program producer Marlon Riggs and series producer Weiss, have been "quite responsible" in informing viewers about the episode via on-air advisories, she said. "I think the stations recognize that P.O.V. is being consistent with its mandate."

P.O.V. provided stations with two packets of information about the program and how to handle it, Weiss said. The experiences of the stations that showed Tongues, quotes from reviews, a letter from the head of the National Black Programming Consortium about why they were presenting the film, answers to some anticipated questions about the film, a biography of filmmaker Riggs and what awards it has won. Producers followed that with a sample letter to station public information departments that could be used to respond to viewer questions.

Weiss said he expected some reaction to the program after stations previewed it via satellite feeds earlier this year. Producers have received some telephone calls and letters from stations. In Orlando at the PBS annual meeting, Weiss said the reaction from some station personnel was very favorable, but "others had quite the opposite reaction."

"The debate about the film within stations and the system has interesting parallels to the discussions about what PBS should be. I'm not saying PBS should be all Tongues, but it's about questions of diversity, and public TV providing a forum for voices which aren't heard elsewhere," Weiss said.

Meanwhile, in Rome

The timing of the incident introduced some ironies. Public stations have promoted heavily the return of another series with a major sexual component, the BBC's I, Claudius, now airing in Masterpiece Theatre's 20th anniversary season. The first night's two-hour episode included scenes with front and rear views of unclothed women, and later episodes involved incidents of incest, rape, bestiality, orgies and torture.

Marlon Riggs

Marlon Riggs


To Current's home page

Commentary: Producer Marlon Riggs tells why he broke "the triple taboo" with his film.

Later story: In the wake of the Tongues controversy, public TV cancels Stop the Church. Only a few stations show the film that criticizes the Roman Catholic Church's reaction to the AIDS crisis.

Related story: Marc Weiss developed P.O.V. into public TV's summer showcase for independent films.

Later story: A year later, public TV managers debate their decisions around Tongues Untied.

Outside link: Bibliography of Marlon Riggs' works and related links at the University of California at Berkeley, where he taught.


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