Ken Burns: His new WW II show on PBS may be test case for new rules censoring swear words





The PBS documentarian Ken Burns has been working for six years on “The War,” a soldier’s-eye view of World War II, and those who have seen parts of the 14-plus hours say they are replete with salty language appropriate to discussions of the horrors of war.

What viewers will see and hear when the series is broadcast in September 2007 is an open question.

A new Public Broadcasting Service policy that went into effect immediately when it was issued on May 31 requires producers whose shows are broadcast before 10 p.m. to adhere to tough editing requirements when it comes to coarse language, to comply with tightened rulings on broadcast indecency by the Federal Communications Commission.

Most notably, PBS’s deputy counsel, Paul Greco, wrote in a memo to stations, it is no longer enough simply to bleep out offensive words audibly when the camera shows a full view of the speaker’s mouth. From now on, the on-camera speaker’s mouth must also be obscured by a digital masking process, a solution that PBS producers have called cartoonish and clumsy.

In addition, profanities expressed in compound words must be audibly bleeped in their entirety so that viewers cannot decipher the words. In the past, PBS required producers to bleep only the offensive part of the compound word.

Since May 31, bits of dialogue have been digitally obscured about 100 times in four PBS programs, most often in two episodes of the music documentary “The Blues.”

Mr. Burns, in an interview, said he was not worried that his work, which he called a “very experiential take on the Second World War,” would be affected by the policy, noting that while the series includes some “very graphic violence,” there are just two profanities, read off camera.

But several other senior public broadcasting executives said “The War” was likely to become a test case for PBS and the F.C.C....



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