Chilling effect of censorship

Worried about big fines from the government, the Public Broadcasting Service is carefully monitoring the content of its shows for profanity, nudity or anything that may be deemed indecent, the nonprofit network’s chief says.

Diane Lane in the movie <em>Unfaithful</em>. Something you won't see on broadcast TV.

Diane Lane in the movie Unfaithful. Something you won’t see on broadcast TV.

The Federal Communications Commission’s standards on indecency that kicked in after the Janet Jackson breast-baring debacle have made broadcasters and producers nervous, Pat Mitchell said in an interview with The Associated Press this week.

Mitchell said PBS, where she is president and chief executive, seems to be under a higher level of scrutiny because it is partially financed by federal taxpayers.

“We’re very concerned about the regulations,” she said. “They’re not as clear as all of us in the media business would like them to be.

“We have to make assumptions, second-guess what is liable.”

That’s exactly what PBS did recently with “A Company of Soldiers,” a documentary on Iraq that contained foul language. Besides offering a version of the film that had questionable parts bleeped out, the network sent out the raw version to stations that were willing to sign a waiver that acknowledged they were not being protected by the producer from FCC penalties.

“We were trying to protect stations from any liability,” Mitchell said, adding that some stations could go bankrupt if a hefty fine was placed on them. “We agreed some stations would want to take the chance anyway.”

Next week, another documentary on Iraq which has some strong language will be offered to stations. They’ve been told that if they air “The Soldier’s Heart,” they must do so after 10 p.m. A toned-down version will be offered as well.

In a wide-ranging interview, Mitchell, 62, discussed her decision to step down as PBS chief in June 2006, the network’s financial challenges, her feelings about the “Buster” controversy and her goals during her final year in the job.

Securing sustainable funding on a national and local level, broadening public television’s reach and resources in education and strengthening children’s and news and public affairs programs top her agenda.

But achieving these and other goals hinges on the need for more money, Mitchell said.

“How do you continue in today’s media environment, with everything being transformed by technology and new expectations?” she asked. “How do you continue to raise 80 percent of revenues just to keep doing what you’re doing now?”

Finding new support is critical, and Mitchell’s resolve is firm.

“I’m completely passionate about a stronger and better resourced broadcasting service,” she said. “I want this to be my legacy. That would be the best thing any leader can hope for – to leave an organization stronger than when you came in.”

Mitchell has her work cut out for her.

When PBS launched there were only three other TV networks. Now there are scores. Cuts in corporate underwriting and the fact that production and other costs have outpaced the small increases in government funding have also made things difficult.

PBS operates on a $319 million annual budget. Less than 20 percent of PBS funding comes from Congress. The rest comes from fund raising, corporate underwriting and station member dues.

Under Mitchell, PBS established a foundation so it could accept large donations. She says it plans to announce its first multimillion-dollar gift from a national foundation in April.

A committee has been created to look into ways for PBS to take advantage of digital opportunities, as well as how to pay for such projects. The panel’s report, due in late March, should highlight how public television can make educational content accessible on cell phones, computers, Blackberrys and more.

Mitchell drew recent criticism for spending public money on a children’s show, “Postcards from Buster,” that featured a real-life lesbian couple in Vermont. The focus of the episode, entitled “Sugartime,” was on farm life and maple sugaring.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said the episode didn’t fulfill the intent Congress had for public-TV programming and said many parents would not want children exposed to such lifestyles.

PBS decided not to distribute the episode to its 349 stations, but Boston public television station WGBH-TV, which produced the series, has made it available to other stations.

“I think it is most unfortunate,” Mitchell said of the flap.

“This is a program that has great positive impact on children. It’s performed exactly as it was supposed to – its mission was to explore America for children, introduce children to a lot of American families, teach children learning skills.”

She said it was “regrettable” that there was so much emphasis on one half-hour out of the series’ 40 episodes.

“It obscured all the good work of a very successful and important series.”

© 2005 The Associated Press