New PBS Chief Concerned About FCC Fines

Jul 26, 2006  •  Post A Comment

The Federal Communications Commission’s increased scrutiny of broadcast content is “tremendously concerning,” PBS President and CEO Paula Kerger said at public broadcaster’s Television Critics Association press tour session in Pasadena, Calif., Wednesday, noting that the increased fines being levied are a big worry to public television stations in particular.

“We as an industry are very concerned when you have stations whose operating budgets are just a few million dollars,” Kerger said in her first TCA appearance as the top executive of PBS. “The fines now can put stations out of business, and we cannot have that happen.”

PBS has filed an amicus brief in the appeal filed by public television station KCSM-TV in San Mateo, Calif., with the FCC, which fined the station $10,000 in March over the 2004 airing of the Martin Scorsese documentary “The Blues: Godfathers and Sons.” A local viewer complained about the film’s use of profanity.

The FCC has created “a great deal of misunderstanding” about what is and is not acceptable, Ms. Kerger said, which makes life extremely difficult for the local public TV station managers who create their own schedules of PBS-supplied content. Part of the problem has been communicating these concerns to PBS viewers, she said.

“We need to do a better job of letting the American people know this is not just about Janet Jackson,” Ms. Kerger said.

The obscurity over what the FCC finds objectionable can be illustrated in filmmaker Ken Burns’ fall 2007 World War II documentary “The War,” Ms. Kerger said, since in recent meetings with FCC commissioners, none of them would tell her what the reaction would be to the planned use of profanity in the project.

“I could not get anyone to say to me the Ken Burns film is going to be okay,” she said.

PBS Senior VP John F. Wilson stood up at Ms. Kerger’s session to let critics know that as part of FCC concerns PBS also pixilates scenes in which subjects use profanity, since viewers might still be able to understand the profanity without the sound by reading lips.

Ms. Kerger called Corporation for Public Broadcasting Chair Pat Harrison a “tireless advocate” for public broadcasting, and noted that she and Ms. Harrison “have done a sister act on the Hill” when it comes to lobbying members of Congress on funding and other public TV issues. This is in marked contrast to the stormy relationship former PBS CEO Pat Mitchell had with Ms. Harrison’s predecessor, Kenneth Tomlinson, who was criticized for injecting partisan politics into the running of CPB.

As part of the press tour session, Ms. Kerger announced that starting today, viewers can buy selected PBS programming from the Web site Google Video, including “Antiques Roadshow,” “NOVA,” “Now” and “Scientific American Frontiers,” plus the PBS Kids programming “Arthur,” “Cyberchase” and “Fetch!”

PBS viewers can also download to own the same programming through the Web site Open Media Network.