The Ken Burns doc -- and worries the FCC will come down on PBS stations that air four curses in it -- may spur a new debate on why TV is regulated at all

By Mark Harris
Updated September 25, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Courtesy of the National Archives

The War

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”Indecency” battle over PBS’s ”War”?

This fall, what you know about World War II will change forever,” promise the posters touting Ken Burns’ The War. They’re not kidding. The 15-hour PBS documentary hasn’t even aired, and I’ve already learned something new: Apparently, the Allies defeated the Nazis in Europe and won the war in the Pacific without using a single naughty word. At least, that’s the message that public television viewers in some parts of the country will be getting, since PBS has decided to offer its local stations both an unexpurgated version of the film and a sanitized one that deletes exactly four curses, thus making television, history, and global conflict all safe for a 6-year-old. From the man who brought you The Civil War, here’s the sequel: The Exceptionally Civil War. (There’s no word yet on whether episode 5, entitled ”FUBAR,” will be renamed ”UBAR.”)

I wish this were a joke; it certainly sounds like one. Or, if not a joke, perhaps an act of brinksmanship engineered to demonstrate just how ludicrous the Federal Communications Commission’s appetite to root out ”indecency” has become under its current chairman, Kevin Martin. But that’s not the case. The FCC can’t tell networks what to air in advance. However, if you think PBS is being paranoid, consider the fact that the FCC fined a San Mateo, Calif., public TV station $15,000 for profanity in Martin Scorsese’s documentary The Blues last year. It seems America isn’t ready to know that musicians curse, either.

But the FCC’s harrumphing efforts to spot and squelch indecency (as well as profit from it by means of hefty fines) may be losing support across party lines. The San Mateo station is appealing the ruling against The Blues, which one of the FCC’s own members suggested defied ”common sense”; CBS is currently in court arguing that Janet Jackson’s nipple should not result in a half-million-dollar cash prize to the government; and no less ironclad a conservative than George Will has groaned at a squeaky-clean version of The War. Given the contempt being expressed by just about everyone for this decision, is it possible that we are finally turning a corner in that beloved long-standing talk-radio chew toy, the ”culture wars”?

NEXT PAGE: ”Perhaps it’s time to ask why the government has any business regulating TV at all.”

In June, when a federal court tossed out the FCC’s attempt to label ”fleeting expletives” on live shows (e.g., ”Holy s—, I can’t believe I won this award!”) as indecent, Martin issued a tantrum of a statement in tired and familiar language. The judges who overruled him — or, as he pointedly put it, ”the New York court” — were ”divorced from reality”; he added that unless the FCC was allowed to rule with a firmer hand, ”Hollywood will be able to say anything they want.” You know how the rest of this goes, right? ”New York” and ”Hollywood” are on the side of unfettered evil; on the other side is, naturally, ”America.” Choose your team carefully.

A few years ago, this might have played better with its intended constituency. But today, a new divide is emerging that doesn’t fall so naturally along partisan lines. There are people who want to childproof all of mass culture. Then there is a group of adults who don’t want their entertainment options, at home or anywhere else, curtailed because somebody else’s child might be watching something that his parents might not want him to see. It’s ”Think about the children!” versus ”You made ’em, you raise ’em” — and that’s not a red-state/blue-state issue.

It’s shocking, in 2007, to hear the chairman of a federal commission complain that Hollywood can ”say anything they want,” and not just because of the indecent grammar. Aside from its carefree ignorance of the First Amendment, Martin’s statement underscores just how bewildering and, in a way, antiquated the notion of the airwaves as a public entity has become, because of course ”Hollywood” can say whatever it wants — anywhere except on network TV. The government has no control over what’s released in movie theaters or on DVD, what arrives in books or on CDs, or what’s piped into homes or phones via iTunes or YouTube or MySpace — and I imagine that most Americans, Republican and Democrat, don’t want a cultural commissar of any kind making entertainment decisions for them or their families. Perhaps it’s time to ask why TV should be treated any differently — why, in fact, the government has any business regulating it at all. Many people would welcome a real discussion about how the television industry can serve both the legitimate needs of parents (who themselves have widely varying viewpoints about what’s appropriate for their kids) and the rights of entertainment consumers. But there has to be a better way to initiate that conversation than opportunistic fines for rough language imposed by indecency police. Meanwhile, it wouldn’t hurt if PBS rediscovered its spine and decided to stand behind The War — every single word of it — even if that means another trip to court.

The War

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  • PG-13