The Ombudsman's Mailbag
By Michael Getler
October 3, 2006
Fear of Fining
The effect of confusion over the Federal Communication Commission's controversial rulings on indecency issues — and concern over the recently enacted Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act that allows the FCC to impose fines of $325,000 on broadcasters who are deemed to have aired such material — surfaced again last week. This time it involved the airing, by PBS stations, of a two-hour documentary on the life and death of Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France and wife of King Louis XVI from 1774-1793 and a central figure in the French Revolution.
Although this program generated very little mail to me from viewers, there are a couple of interesting things associated with it.
For one thing, the film carried a "for mature audience" rating, and it involved some PBS self-censorship in the form of obscuration of some content. Included in the film were several 200-year-old pencil drawings, similar to newspaper cartoons, which portrayed Antoinette in love-making positions and involved in other acts, and suggested the sexual impotence of the King. Those drawings were not censored. Some other drawings of that period clearly were meant to be sex organs. The obscuration, or blurring of images, took place with those particular drawings.
Here's one letter that objected to the censorship that did take place:
"I just finished watching the most fascinating documentary on Marie Antoinette. How completely absurd that there was censorship of historical documents and objects. As a member, I find this sort of censorship beyond ridiculous, laughable even. If I want my information censored, I would not be a member of PBS. When will you stand up to the tyranny of the right wing?"
Marie Ellen Larcada Smith, No. Bergen, NJ
One of the things I find interesting is the fact that there was so little mail about this, either lamenting the showing of those cartoons that were not censored, or the censorship of any of them.
Yet, while there were hardly any complaints to me, several PBS-affiliated stations seemed to treat the program with considerable care. The program had been fed to members stations by PBS and scheduled to air at 9 p.m. locally on Sept. 25. Of 54 major PBS affiliates around the country routinely monitored by the Nielsen ratings service, 36 did broadcast the program in that time slot. But 11 stations pushed it back to a 10 p.m. start so that it would fall within the allowed "safe harbor" period when the FCC assumes children would not be watching. Stations in another seven of the major markets did not run it, although it isn't known why in all cases, or whether it will be shown but at a later date.
The issue surfaced publicly when the Denver Post newspaper, and a couple of broadcast trade publications, reported on Sept. 26 that the Rocky Mountain PBS network, involving three stations in Colorado, had pulled the program from the schedule earlier that day and bumped it to a later time at a still-to-be decided date because of ambiguity over the FCC policies and fear of being fined. Those new $325,000 penalties, by the way, represent a ten-fold increase from previous levels and are an especially severe threat hanging over smaller stations.
James Morgese, president and general manager of RMPBS, told the Post that he looked at the program "at 10 this morning. What I saw is nothing worse than what you see on TV elsewhere, but in this era of heightened sensitivity by the FCC, fines are pretty stiff." He added that, "It's a good show, historical and factual."
That's what also makes this interesting. There is no doubt that these sexually explicit drawings — appearing often in pamphlets and periodicals in France and other neighboring countries at the time — were absolutely central to understanding the downfall of Marie Antoinette and her role in the French Revolution, which was a major event in European history. So, on the one hand, there are grounds to air this at 9 rather than 10 and not to worry about censorship, as most stations did. On the other hand, would a parent whose youngster is studying the French Revolution, and who invites the youngster to watch this PBS documentary, be surprised and dismayed at some of its content (the parent, that is)? That's not hard to imagine either.
So the FCC and its ambiguous rules, and its new Congressionally-mandated fines signed off on by the President, continue to confound and conflict broadcast channels struggling to present reality.
And Another View
Here's a letter from another viewer about another aspect of the program.
As one who has studied Marie Antoinette's life, I was both gratified and deeply disappointed in David Gruber's film about her which aired this past Monday. Gratified because it did justice, at last, to the queen's tremendous strength of character. But deeply disappointed by the studied omission of all reference to the Catholic faith which lay at the very heart of every decision she and her husband made, and which upheld them to their last breaths. As a result, your film — sanitized of "an inconvenient truth" so displeasing to PBS' all-sanitizing political correctness — was robbed of its piquancy, its historical charm, and its very life's blood. The truth might have held your audience enthralled — and if the queen had been a Moslem or a Jew or even a Protestant, you would have never omitted it.
James Gloege, Glenwood, MN
On the Importance of Endings
In last week's column there was a segment headlined, "Loved the Program; Hated the Ending." It recorded the annoyance of several viewers who wrote to say they thoroughly enjoyed the two-day, four-hour "American Masters" documentary on the life of American artist Andy Warhol, but were appalled at how, at the end of the program, the sound accompanying an interview with Warhol was cut off and the screen was split to "squeeze the credits off to the side," as one viewer put it, while the other side of the screen was "usurped by a stupid promo for another show," as another viewer put it.
Some additional letters on this subject arrived in the past few days and a couple are included below. I asked PBS and producers at WNET, Channel Thirteen in New York, to respond to these viewer complaints. Here is their response:
"From PBS and the producers of AMERICAN MASTERS Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film:
"PBS and the producers of AMERICAN MASTERS Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film apologize for the ending we provided for the national telecast of the program on Thursday, September 21. The documentary was running longer than the two hours allotted; and to make up time as well as to provide information about upcoming PBS programs and other messages, we made a decision to cut into the program and put the production credits up on a split screen. In hindsight, and based on your feedback, we agree that this may not have been the best solution to the problem."
Here are some more letters on the manner in which the Warhol documentary ended, and also some censorship issues that arose during this program as well. These letters arrived after last week's column and before the response/explanation published above.
Some Further Thoughts
I was deeply offended by editing of two segments in Part 2 of the Andy Warhol biography aired last week. The first issue concerns censorship: the digital sanitization of one of the famous Factory films, apparently to protect our eyes from naked buttocks and/or sexual acts depicted in the work. This is a biography of an artist defined as a master of the 20th century: what was done makes as much sense as would covering The David's genitals with a fig leaf, or draping the Venus de Milo. We were allowed to hear commentary, but not allowed to see and judge for ourselves. Was this a necessary end-run by PBS to avoid controversy and the potential threat of an FCC fine for indecency? Such censorship is simply intolerable, and it is frightening that our institutions no longer stand up against it. PBS should have run the segment and been prepared to fight for the right to show it intact.
The second issue was the muting of the interview with the artist that concluded the show — in order for PBS to run ads for its upcoming offerings simultaneously. Using shows as ad space for something else is just stupid. Bad enough that you run ever extended commercials between programs, but running commercials during programs? Ludicrous.
So now PBS willingly censors art and educational information that could only be offensive to extremists with no desire to understand context or anything that doesn't conform to their own, limited views. You add insult to injury when promo overlays are given precedence over program content. Your standards have never sunk so low. It's sad and disgusting. I hope you will consider renewing your commitment to quality programming in future.
DM, Santa Monica, CA
At the end of the excellent documentary on Andy Warhol, he was being interviewed while the credits were running over top. The only problem is that you interrupted the credits and the sound with a half screen advertisement for some other show on PBS. We therefore missed the credits because the print was now so small one could not read the information, but worst of all the sound was cut off and we missed the interview with Andy Warhol. Please exercise some common sense when running the credits and do not cut off an important part of the show — it is very disrespectful — especially when there is still dialog taking place.
Lawrence Lott, Vancouver, B.C.
While watching an exceptional documentary last week on Andy Warhol, this man of few words, is conversing with an interviewer in the last few frames of the film. To my horror, the screen splits, Andy goes mute, credits listing individuals that must of given their blood, sweat and tears to make the project shrink to the size of bible text in miniature binding, speed north of the screen like ants and Thirteen is on the left pitching 'stuff." I've been watching public television since childhood. Please stop the advertisements between broadcasts and, for god's sakes, nix the screen-splitting. If one wants that nonsense, one may tune in elsewhere. Public Television is sacred ground . . . a refuge from the storm of banal television. Please ensure it stays that way. There's so little left.
Joan, Bronxville, NY
Hugo Chavez and Tavis Smiley
Although the speech of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at the United Nations Sept. 21 gathered headlines around the world for his attack on President Bush and U.S. policy (he described Bush as "the devil" and U.S. policy as "imperialism" and a global menace), his appearance on the Tavis Smiley program for an interview the next night didn't yield much mail to me from viewers. Here are a couple of e-mails:
I commend Tavis Smiley for his courageous interview with Hugo Chavez and thank PBS for allowing me to hear an intelligent dialog between an American who can clearly, directly, and forcefully articulate our concerns and a politician whose depth of thought has much to offer for our consideration. Thank you for rising above the empty media babble surrounding this man.
John Morgan, Hackensack, NJ
I was appalled that Tavis Smiley would so blatantly show his liberal colors and not only kow-tow to Hugo Chavez, but use him to show his contempt for the Bush Administration as well as publish his faintly disguised left-wing opinions. His sympathetic attitude toward Chavez was disgusting. Smiley exemplifies how liberal PBS is.
East Lansing, MI