Soldiers seen, but not heard, on PBS

Times Staff Writer

“Operation Homecoming,” a documentary running Monday as part of PBS’ “America at a Crossroads” series, offers a searing look at war through the personal writings of soldiers, including a profanity-laced description of a bloody firefight in Iraq.

But except for in a handful of communities around the country, viewers tuning in to watch the one-hour film won’t hear all of the language used by the troops. That’s because PBS -- fearful of triggering scrutiny from the Federal Communications Commission -- is distributing a sanitized version of the program.

Seven profanities were bleeped out of the documentary and several graphic images were blurred, including that of a solider raising his middle finger at a picture of Saddam Hussein.

The cautious handling of “Operation Homecoming” exemplifies how wary public broadcasters are of incurring FCC sanctions, which come with hefty fines that can hobble a noncommercial station. Last year, a PBS station in San Mateo, Calif., was fined $15,000 for airing an episode of the music documentary “The Blues” that included profanities.


Nevertheless, a handful of stations -- including KCET in Los Angeles -- are planning to broadcast an unedited version of “Operation Homecoming” that is quietly being made available by WETA, the station in Washington, D.C., that produced the “Crossroads” series.

WETA executives decided to distribute the original documentary without cuts on their own because they felt the language used by soldiers in the film is central to their experience.

“The authors have chosen the words to convey a certain intensity of emotion that I don’t think you can get through a bleep,” said Chief Operating Officer Joe Bruns. “I think it’s a meaning the American people should be able to experience.”

The film is scheduled to run at 10 p.m. in much of the country, within the “safe harbor” time period when broadcasters are allowed to air what the FCC might consider to be indecent or profane material because children are less likely to be watching.

Still, PBS officials decided to edit out the coarse language and images because the program is set to run an hour earlier on stations in the central time zone. Pushing the program later in those markets could create scheduling complications because the documentary is part of an 11-part series airing throughout the week, they said.

“It never is a first choice for us to take a producer’s words or words of individuals and have to eliminate them,” said John Wilson, chief TV programming executive for PBS. “But what we’re compelled to do at PBS is be on guard for our stations.”

While PBS could distribute a second, unedited version of the film, Wilson said officials worried that could cause confusion.

“Our policy, in the name of trying to eliminate errors so a station doesn’t unwittingly punch up the wrong version, is to keep it relatively clean and straightforward,” he said.

That means stations that want to air an uncensored version of the film must get it directly from WETA. But it’s unclear how many broadcasters know an uncut edition is available, since WETA did not formally announce it to the public television system.

“It’s been mostly word of mouth,” said Bruns, whose station is going to air the original film with the profanities. “We don’t want to put any station in the uncomfortable situation of having to make the choice publicly.”

As of Thursday, PBS stations in New York, Boston, Albany, San Francisco, Tampa, Fla., and Los Angeles had decided to run the complete version. All had to sign a waiver agreeing not to hold WETA responsible if their broadcast triggers FCC fines.

Officials at Los Angeles’ KCET learned the unedited version was available only after an inquiry from The Times and hurriedly made plans to air it.

“We believe this is a story of war and the language is appropriate,” said spokeswoman Laurel Lambert.

The stories in “Operation Homecoming” are drawn from journal entries, poems and letters written as part of a National Endowment of the Arts project by soldiers who have served since Sept. 11, 2001.

Tom Yellin, the documentary’s executive producer, said he was surprised all stations weren’t given the choice to air it with the profanities included.

“I think it’s critically important to have the option,” Yellin said. “The fact that there is a potential penalty imposed on stations and us is very unfortunate and silly. What’s really troubling in the film is not the language; it’s the experience we’re asking, as a country, an entire generation of men and women to subject themselves to.”

PBS will face a similar issue this fall when it broadcasts “The War,” Ken Burns’ World War II documentary, scheduled to air outside of the “safe harbor” period. There are at least three instances of coarse language in the program, but officials are considering leaving them in and letting individual stations decide whether to bleep them out.

Such a strategy wasn’t feasible for “Operation Homecoming,” Wilson said, because the number of profanities was greater.

“It would make the amount of work necessary on a local station level to cover this on their own beyond a reasonable sort of expectation,” he said. “The opportunity for error just goes up.”