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PBS feels imperiled by FCC decency rules

‘Fines now would put stations out of business’ says PBS president
/ Source: The Associated Press

Unclear federal rules for broadcast television decency standards are putting public TV stations at risk and threaten to deprive viewers of important programs, PBS President Paula Kerger said Wednesday.

“The fines now would put stations out of business, and we cannot allow that to happen,” Kerger told a meeting of the Television Critics Association.

“We need to do a better job ... in letting the American people know that this is not just about Janet Jackson,” she said. “This is about filmmakers that have powerful stories that now are not being allowed to tell those stories on public television or broadcast television.”

The current furor over broadcast TV standards was fanned by the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show on CBS, in which pop singer Jackson’s breast was exposed during a song.

Next week, PBS plans to file arguments in support of a Northern California public TV station that is appealing a $15,000 fine levied by the Federal Communications Commission over the airing of an episode of Martin Scorsese’s music documentary “The Blues.”

The program included interviews in which profanity was used, and the FCC received a complaint from a viewer. The station, KCSM of San Mateo, is liable for the fine, not PBS — standard when fines are levied against broadcasters.

The federal benchmark for what is or isn’t indecent is so vague that stations are put in danger of violating standards they don’t realize exist, Kerger said.

The FCC declined to comment on Kerger’s remarks.

Kerger noted the tenfold increase in federal fines per violation, from a maximum of $32,500 to as much as $325,000.

PBS is wary of what might befall an upcoming documentary on World War II by acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns. “The War” is scheduled to air in fall 2007.

Those sharing their memories for such a film should be able to do so freely, even if FCC-banned epithets are involved, Kerger said.