NEW YORK – The Public Broadcasting Service (search) has come under attack twice this year by critics and even longtime supporters for a program about soldiers serving in Iraq and a children's show starring a cartoon bunny.
But PBS wasn't criticized for offensive content. Instead, its viewers were annoyed that it wouldn't stand up for its programming.
"PBS has really betrayed their heritage over the past couple of decades," Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker told FOXNews.com. "They've ceded too much territory."
Tucker, who in his new book "Kissing Bill O'Reilly and Roasting Miss Piggy: 100 Things to Love and Hate About TV" lambastes public broadcasting for losing its edge and said PBS has become "afraid of programming with a point of view."
The problem facing PBS, as well as other broadcasters, is hesitation about where the Federal Communications Commission (search) draws the line on indecent programming.
In the aftermath of the infamous Super Bowl halftime show in 2004, Viacom, the parent company of CBS, was fined $550,000. The media giant is contesting that penalty but separately paid a record $3.5 million in indecency fines last November.
In 2004, indecency fines doled out by the FCC topped $7.7 million, compared with $440,000 in 2003. Earlier this month, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill raising the fine ceiling to $500,000 per infraction, up from the current $27,500 fee.
PBS can ill afford that kind of payout. Having already survived a hostile Republican-dominated Congress' efforts in the 1990s to cut off its federal funding, PBS, the institution that introduced America to Elmo, Julia Child and learn-to-paint guru Bob Ross, has begun to carefully scrutinize programming for anything that could draw the FCC's ire.
On Jan. 25, PBS dropped an episode of the children's show "Postcards From Buster" that featured children from two same-sex households. According to Current, a newspaper that covers public television, 46 of 170 licensees have aired or plan to air the episode entitled "Sugartime!" on Wednesday — despite a threatening letter from new Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (search) criticizing its contents.
In February, PBS fed to its affiliates an episode of its groundbreaking series "Frontline" about a company of soldiers serving in southern Iraq. The episode "bleeped" about a dozen or so expletives by U.S. soldiers despite appeals from the program's producers. Stations that aired the unedited version had to sign a waiver promising to absolve PBS of any FCC fines the program incurred.
While it awaits more clarification from the FCC on its indecency policies, public TV broadcasters have warned that viewers can expect only more "self-censorship."
A Mission in Question
From the start, the purpose of PBS, which was incorporated in 1969, was to promote educational and cultural programming, with particular attention to children. But diversity — or the "d-word," as conservative columnist George Will put it in a recent editorial — soon became sticky ground. Starting in the 1970s, producers were faced with increasingly sensitive topics like homosexuality and AIDS.
John Wilson, co-chief program executive, does not apologize for PBS' history of promoting tolerance.
"We didn't define diversity. Diversity is all around you, and George Will should maybe get out a little more often," he said.
"Go to a preschool in America today ... this is one of the most diverse groups of kids you're ever going to find. Not just what their ethnicity is, but the household makeup they come from, from single parents to divorced parents to blended families, from kids living with grandparents to kids living in extended families."
Although PBS canceled the "Sugartime!" episode after Spellings asked for a refund on federal dollars spent on the program, the publicity storm revived a decades-old debate over PBS.
FOX News host Bill O'Reilly wrote that "introducing homosexuality into the little-kid culture angers many Americans who believe sex in general is an inappropriate topic for small children."
And Will went a step further, wondering why the Department of Education was funding "Postcards From Buster" in the first place.
"Is there a desperate shortage of television cartoons?" he wrote, referring to the numerous kids-oriented programs that have popped up since the advent of cable television. "Is Buster to other cartoons as Beethoven is to Bon Jovi?"
As the Bush administration seeks to cut $10 million from public broadcasting in the budget for fiscal year 2006, PBS continues to pursue alternative funding models. Still, it is unlikely that the federal government will ever give PBS the ultimate kiss-off.
"Just about every industrialized country places importance in carving out space for non-commercialized news and entertainments," said Joseph Turow of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.
"There are certainly problems with the way public television is organized today ... but that doesn't mean some non-commercialized outlet for public TV is not critical to our culture," he said.
A February Roper poll (search) found that, especially with regard to children's programming, public television is trusted far more than the Big Three broadcasters and even newspapers. In addition, 62 percent of 1,001 Americans surveyed found PBS to be "extremely important" programming, while 41 percent said they trust PBS more than six other television news networks surveyed.
Hit by the F-Bomb
PBS is known for serious news-oriented programming, led by the hard-hitting "Frontline," which introduced viewers to Usama bin Laden (search) well before he became public enemy No. 1.
But with harsher FCC rules, PBS officials said they worried the network's legacy was in jeopardy. "Frontline" producers said they have been forced to re-evaluate and even censor programs that would have run without complaint just two years earlier.
A rerun of the 1998 show about teen murderer Kip Kinkel (search) was recently re-edited for language, executive producer David Fanning said. In addition, early last month, as two-thirds of the ABC stations that aired "Saving Private Ryan" last Veterans Day awaited an FCC ruling on whether the show was profane or not, PBS executives couldn't help but worry about airing another program focusing on the nature of war.
Producers found themselves in a bind over "A Company of Soldiers," an unadorned 90-minute profile of Dog Company, 1st Battalion, Eighth Cavalry Regiment (search), which wrestled with a spillover of insurgents into southern Baghdad after a major U.S.-led offensive in Fallujah last November.
During the course of filming, a convoy was hit by a roadside bomb. In the chaotic aftermath, soldiers were heard shouting the "F" word. In a letter to station managers, "Frontline" executives warned about the raw language: "The language of these soldiers is sprinkled with expletives, especially at their moments of greatest fear and stress. ... We feel strongly that the language of war should not be sanitized and that there is nothing 'indecent' about its use in this context."
Only 43 out of 175 stations that broadcast "A Company of Soldiers" aired the unedited version, a "Frontline" spokeswoman said. Fifteen did so at the program's usual time slot of 9 p.m., before the "safe harbor" period of 10 p.m.
"A fine of $500,000 would be very punishing for us," said a WNET-TV spokeswoman, whose station aired the unedited version an hour later than the usual 9 p.m. time slot for the show. The New York City broadcaster's total operating budget was $175.6 million in fiscal year 2004. In comparison, NBC pays about $240 million on the licensing fees for its hospital series "ER."
The program received no viewer complaints, Fanning said, and a Gulf War veteran who runs the military blog Blackfive called the documentary "excellent."
"Not only do Americans not really understand what our soldiers do every day, they don't get to see the thousands of positive acts by our military every day," Matt, who did not want his last name published, wrote in an e-mail interview.
Matt said he was sympathetic to PBS' concerns but would have liked to see stations "take a stand." He attributed the success of "milblogs" like his to readers' hunger for the realities of war without the "political filter" of the media.
But Army Capt. Daniel Sukman, who was in Iraq from May 2002 through July 2003, was less sympathetic to PBS' handling of "Company."
"If people really want to see what we go through in combat, our language and actions should be shown in its entirety," he said via e-mail. "If someone's biggest problem is the language I use in combat, how do they feel about the fact we are killing people and losing our own? That is what should be offensive."
PBS' Wilson said he agreed with Sukman's argument, but stressed that his job was to protect his company and the local broadcasters.
"We couldn't knowingly give stations a version of the program that a reasonable person looking at the FCC rules would deem indecent," he said.
PBS has been waiting since May 2004 for the FCC to respond to an appeal asking the commission to clarify profanity rules. The FCC declined to comment on this story, and calls to the five commissioners were not returned.