The Final Cut

A 'War' of Words

The Ken Burns doc -- and worries the FCC will come down on PBS stations that air four curses in it -- may spur a new debate on why TV is regulated at all

KEN BURNS' THE WAR ''The 15-hour PBS documentary hasn't even aired, and I've already learned something new: Apparently, the Allies defeated the Nazis in Europe…
Image credit: Courtesy of the National Archives
KEN BURNS' THE WAR ''The 15-hour PBS documentary hasn't even aired, and I've already learned something new: Apparently, the Allies defeated the Nazis in Europe and won the war in the Pacific without using a single naughty word''

''Indecency'' battle over PBS's ''War''?

This fall, what you know about World War II will change forever,'' promise the posters touting Ken Burns' The War. They're not kidding. The 15-hour PBS documentary hasn't even aired, and I've already learned something new: Apparently, the Allies defeated the Nazis in Europe and won the war in the Pacific without using a single naughty word. At least, that's the message that public television viewers in some parts of the country will be getting, since PBS has decided to offer its local stations both an unexpurgated version of the film and a sanitized one that deletes exactly four curses, thus making television, history, and global conflict all safe for a 6-year-old. From the man who brought you The Civil War, here's the sequel: The Exceptionally Civil War. (There's no word yet on whether episode 5, entitled ''FUBAR,'' will be renamed ''UBAR.'')

I wish this were a joke; it certainly sounds like one. Or, if not a joke, perhaps an act of brinksmanship engineered to demonstrate just how ludicrous the Federal Communications Commission's appetite to root out ''indecency'' has become under its current chairman, Kevin Martin. But that's not the case. The FCC can't tell networks what to air in advance. However, if you think PBS is being paranoid, consider the fact that the FCC fined a San Mateo, Calif., public TV station $15,000 for profanity in Martin Scorsese's documentary The Blues last year. It seems America isn't ready to know that musicians curse, either.

But the FCC's harrumphing efforts to spot and squelch indecency (as well as profit from it by means of hefty fines) may be losing support across party lines. The San Mateo station is appealing the ruling against The Blues, which one of the FCC's own members suggested defied ''common sense''; CBS is currently in court arguing that Janet Jackson's nipple should not result in a half-million-dollar cash prize to the government; and no less ironclad a conservative than George Will has groaned at a squeaky-clean version of The War. Given the contempt being expressed by just about everyone for this decision, is it possible that we are finally turning a corner in that beloved long-standing talk-radio chew toy, the ''culture wars''?

NEXT PAGE: ''Perhaps it's time to ask why the government has any business regulating TV at all.''

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