PBS to Deliver Only Edited War Feed on Weekends

Ken Burns Documentary The War Delivered to PBS Stations in Edited, Unedited Versions

PBS is looking to avoid airing profanities "in the teeth" of the Federal Communications Commission’s enforcement regime.

While the commission's crackdown on cussing has been called into question by a federal court, PBS is taking no chances, or at least fewer than it could, with Ken Burns’ documentary, The War.

PBS is feeding both an edited and unedited version of The War to stations for each of seven two-hour debut broadcasts over seven evenings, which began Sunday night. It will feed only the edited version -- minus four swear words that crop up in episodes two and five -- to stations for weekend "stacking," when some stations will run all four of the first week's episodes back-to-back, which means that they will start airing in the afternoon or even the morning.

Why? "Because conceivably, a four-year-old could watch it,” PBS spokeswoman Lea Sloan said, "and it would be going right into the teeth of the FCC."

The FCC's teeth have been blunted somewhat by a court decision that could eventually undue its crackdown on fleeting profanities. "The situation is what it is for now," said WGBH Boston director of programming Ron Bachman, but it "may not always be this way."

For now, however, Bachman said his noncommercial station will air the unedited feed for the initial evening debuts of the program, but all subsequent reairings will be of the edited version, including any reairings at night, just so that there is not chance of inadvertently airing one of the unedited versions during the day.

He added that the station might have taken that route anyway as a matter of its own editorial standards, but it is also doing it so that "we don't inadvertently find ourselves in hot water with the FCC," given the multiple airings of the series across his analog and digital channels.

But since WGBH will slate the first airings of episodes two and five before the FCC's 10 p.m. harbor, isn't it “advertently” putting itself in that same hot water?

"Yes," Bachman said,” but given the context of the show, about the experience of people in the extremity of war, and given that PBS and Ken Burns have made a legal determination that an evening broadcast before 10 p.m. [is acceptable] should a station decide that's appropriate for their market, then we are on pretty safe ground as far as the FCC shows."

In the irony department, Burns told a National Press Club audience that WETA's top executive, Sharon Rockefeller, helped to create the climate that allowed him to "practice his craft." Her husband, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.), earlier this year introduced a bill to give the FCC explicit authority to fine broadcasters for fleeting profanities.

And what version is Sharon Rockefeller's WETA going to air? The unedited version for all of the nighttime plays, according to a spokeswoman, but the edited PBS feed for the weekend runs when, it, too, will be stacking the series in the afternoon.