Sept. 11 TV Documentary to Challenge FCC Standards

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CBS will push the limits of FCC indecency regulations when it airs a newly revised Sept. 11 documentary next month. Despite increasingly tight FCC guidelines, the program will contain raw language seldom heard on network television.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

A revised documentary about the 9/11 attacks may become a battleground over profanity on TV. The CBS broadcast is going ahead even as a new federal regulator takes a hard line. Here's NPR's David Folkenflik.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK reporting:

Gédéon and Jules Naudet set out in 2001 to record the experiences of a newly minted firefighter in New York City.

Ms. SUSAN ZIRINSKY (Executive Producer, CBS News): It was uneventful until 8:46 on September 11th. And then they knew, while they had not asked for this role, they became eyewitnesses to history.

FOLKENFLIK: Susan Zirinsky is an executive producer at CBS News. She's overseen the documentaries broadcast on her network - its third showing. The program, simply titled 9/11, has haunting footage from inside the World Trade Center itself.

Ms. ZIRINSKY: These were amazing guys that found themselves at the gates of hell, but they had the wherewithal to not stop shooting.

FOLKENFLIK: A day of resilience and horror.

(Soundbite from documentary 9/11)

Unidentified Male: You feel the ground rumble. It was just (bleep). The (unintelligible) was just chasing you. We were running. Hauling (bleep). I mean (bleep).

FOLKENFLIK: But the network doesn't want you to have to hear the bleeps. It's broadcasting the actual words. CBS Executive Vice President Martin Franks says it wasn't a tough call.

Mr. MARTIN FRANKS (Executive Vice President, CBS): I don't think it lessens their heroism even remotely that they cut lose with some four-letter words. It shows the incredible stress that they were under that day. And to sanitize it somehow robs it of that reality.

FOLKENFLIK: But there's another reality. Under Chairman Kevin Martin, the Federal Communications Commission has become more aggressive in fining over-the-air broadcasters for language it says is indecent. And the penalties have just been increased ten-fold, up to $325,000 for each instance.

Randy Sharp is the director for special projects for the conservative American Family Association in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Mr. RANDY SHARP (Director, American Family Association): Each time a network airs a profanity - in this case it would be the S word and the F word - the FCC has been very clear that if broadcasters violate the law they will be fined.

FOLKENFLIK: Sharp argues CBS has no need to broadcast the curse words, and a strong reason not to: children will be watching.

Mr. SHARP: It's shocking enough for us to see the towers come down and see the anguish on the faces of people without being subjected to the extreme profanity.

FOLKENFLIK: The association plans to protest the show, but the risk of fines is believed to be quite low. Documentaries are assessed differently than, say, sitcoms, but they can draw fines. One on PBS did just this year. Under the new rules, the FCC could levy fines as high as $12 million on each station that airs 9/11. At least 20 CBS stations are nervous about showing the documentary.

Louie Wiley understands why. He's the executive editor of the PBS documentary series, Frontline.

Mr. LOUIE WILEY (Executive Editor, Frontline): The whole conversation shifted away from editorial matters and shifted to, really, what the lawyers had to say.

FOLKENFLIK: In late May, PBS announced it would bleep possibly indecent words from the documentaries it distributes, and even digitally obscure of people who are swearing. This month PBS changed its mind saying it wouldn't pixelate their mouths, the bleeps will remains.

Critics say the FCC is sending mixed messages. It dismissed complaints about ABC's broadcast of the Steven Spielberg epic, Saving Private Ryan. Rough language coursed through the film, a grunt's eye view of the invasion of Normandy. But PBS is edgy about veterans swearing in an upcoming Ken Burns documentary series, also about World War II.

Louie Wiley says hard choices lie ahead.

Mr. WILEY: We could always cut the scene out or reduce its impact by bleeping the words, but that may not be the most accurate way to portray the reality of the world.

FOLKENFLIK: The FCC won't comment on the newest version of the CBS documentary 9/11, even to give a green light in advance of its broadcast could be considered a form of censorship.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, Washington.

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