Early Hour for War Series, Salty Language and All
by Elizabeth Jensen
The New York Times
November 6, 2006
As it begins a 10-month publicity push leading up to the September 2007 broadcast of Ken Burns's new documentary series on World War II, PBS plans to announce this week that the programs will be shown at 8 p.m., even though a couple of episodes contain obscenities.
Mr. Burns has maintained all along that his seven-part series of "The War" would be shown at 8 p.m., particularly because he wants it to be seen by young people who did not live through the war and its aftermath. But some in public television expressed concern over the summer that even the minimal use of obscenities would cause stations to run afoul of the Federal Communications Commission's tightened policies against indecency, unless the series was broadcast after 10 p.m., when the F.C.C.'s "safe harbor" period for children ends. Some episodes are likely to include viewer discretion warnings because of grim war images.
In an interview from his New Hampshire office, Mr. Burns said last week that there were three clear-cut uses of obscenity in the series's 14½ hours, and that those words, which were used in voice-over, have in the past been granted exceptions by the F.C.C. He called their use "so minor and so appropriate to the story."
"In order to save the world, these guys sometimes had to use language we sometimes wouldn't use in our daily discourse," he said. "I forgive them, and I hope others will too."
Mr. Burns said he alerted PBS to the obscenities when he learned that the PBS station in San Mateo, Calif., had been fined by the F.C.C. last spring after a viewer complained about obscenities in the documentary "The Blues." PBS, he said, had offered him "only the most vigorous and wonderful support." Public television "is not about gratuitous language or sexuality," he added. "When we have it, it is for good reason."
Individual stations have the option of delaying the episodes until a later hour — as they did with the recent documentary "Marie Antoinette," which contained racy 200-year-old political cartoons — or just showing the nightly 10 p.m. rebroadcast that PBS will also schedule. Stations could conceivably also ask PBS and Mr. Burns to make available a version of the film that bleeps the offending words, as many stations did with the recent rebroadcast of "Eyes on the Prize."
"The War" follows the American experience chronologically from beginning to end through the perspectives of about 50 residents of four towns: Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Luverne, Minn. Both the European and Pacific war theaters will be examined as simultaneous events. The approach, Mr. Burns said, will permit "the ordinary experience to anchor an aerial view of the war."
"Rather than be distracted by the celebrities of the war and the endless strategic and overarching meaning," he added, "we have spent more time in the experience of it, which helps to remind people about war itself." Mr. Burns plans to show highlights of the film on Nov. 16 at the International Conference on World War II at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.