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PBS doc brings San Mateo station viewer acclaim, FCC fine

Originally published in Current, March 20, 2006
By Jeremy Egner

An acclaimed documentary series has landed a California public TV station in hot water with the FCC. KCSM in San Mateo was fined $15,000 last week for airing a profanity-laced installment of The Blues in March 2004.

The ruling further muddles PBS’s understanding of what is acceptable to air on public TV stations. The commission announced it March 15 along with numerous fines penalizing commercial broadcasters for televised teen orgies, pixilated naughty bits and Janet Jackson’s now-legendary Super Bowl nip-slip, among other indiscretions.

The offending PBS program, The Blues: Godfathers and Sons, aired on KCSM from 8 to 10 p.m. on March 11, 2004—trespassing in the so-called “safe harbor” for family-friendly content of 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. The commission took exception to variations on “fuck” and “shit”—two words that are “likely to shock the viewer and disturb the peace and quiet of the home,” according to the ruling.

“The gratuitous and repeated use of this language in a program that San Mateo aired at a time when children were expected to be in the audience is shocking,” the FCC said.
One of approximately150,000 KCSM viewers watching The Blues that night was shocked enough to complain to the FCC, says Marilyn Lawrence, the station’s g.m. The complaint went to the FCC on a form that matched one on the Parents Television Council website, Lawrence said.
“We would hope that viewers would interact with their local TV station instead of the FCC,” Lawrence said. “During our run of The Blues, we had 50 or 60 calls thanking us for airing it,” but none that were critical.

KCSM was the only PBS station fined for The Blues because it was the only one that received a complaint, the FCC explained in its ruling.

Station reps will meet with San Mateo County Community College trustees this week to decide whether to appeal the fine. “If it’s financially viable in terms of legal fees, we’ll probably appeal,” Lawrence said.

The penalty revives old questions about whether the default PBS “hard feed” should be a version that’s edited or unedited for early evening broadcasts, says John Wilson, PBS co-chief programmer. After the Super Bowl furor in early 2004, PBS put the tamer versions on its hard feeds. But it defaulted to unedited versions after October 2004, when the FCC blessed an uncensored broadcast of Saving Private Ryan, the graphic World War II film, seeming to suggest that profanity was acceptable in clearly appropriate artistic contexts.

“PBS does not put out indecent and obscene content,” Wilson said. “We do serious work by serious filmmakers.” But if the FCC maintains that salty-tongued bluesmen are beyond the pale, PBS will have to revisit its hard-feed policy, he said.

In its explanation for its Saving Private Ryan ruling, the commission excused the use of curse words in part because deleting them would have “diminished the . . . realism” of the experience for viewers. But a documentary film about the reality of blues singers did not merit the same latitude.

In a dissent on the Blues ruling, Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein wrote: “It is clear from a common sense viewing of the program that coarse language is part of the culture of the individuals being portrayed.”

Web page posted March 22, 2006
The newspaper about public TV and radio
in the United States
Current Publishing Committee, Takoma Park, Md.
Copyright 2006


In 1903, W.C. Handy first heard the blues. A century later, PBS aired the series put together by Martin Scorsese.

What the @#*&#$% qualifies as indecent now?


The FCC's full 76-page order (PDF) released March 15, covering multiple broadcasts, mostly on commercial TV (see page 23). Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein issued a partial dissent, saying the order is "dangerously off the mark" in some ways.

In San Mateo, KCSM runs a pubTV station and a pubradio station that specializes in jazz.

Parents Television Council, headed by the conservative media advocate Brent Bozell, urges members to complain to the FCC.

The FCC's penalty for KCSM was small compared to others reported by the Los Angeles Times.