'War' is heck: PBS deploys dual docus to appease FCC

'Clean' version mutes 4 swear words

Ken Burns' documentary about World War II, "The War," will come in two flavors, one with curse words and one without, in the hopes that the PBS stations can avoid government fines for indecency.

There are four words in the 141/2-hour documentary that are causing the heartburn: two instances where the narrator says "fucked" when explaining the military acronyms "FUBAR" and "SNAFU," as well as when former GIs interviewed in the film cuss as they describe combat experiences, saying "holy shit" and referring to an enemy trying to kill them as an "asshole."

A "clean" version of the film has those words silently wiped out on one feed, while another feed transmits a version that allows viewers to hear the words in the clear.

While PBS executives feel that the film avoids legal entanglement, they wanted to give the stations an option.

"We believe we are in a very defensible position," PBS spokeswoman Jan McNamara said.

McNamara said the FCC's ruling that the Steven Spielberg film "Saving Private Ryan" did not run afoul of the rules appear to protect "War," but she added that the agency's inconsistencies has given the pubcaster pause.

While the FCC cleared "Private Ryan," it levied a $15,000 fine against KCSM, a small public station in San Mateo, Calif., for airing an episode of "The Blues." The FCC ruled that the language in the Martin Scorsese documentary about blues musicians was gratuitous. That fine was overturned in June by the federal appeals court in New York —which tossed out the key FCC indecency ruling that said a slip of the tongue can get broadcasters a fine for indecency — telling the commission that it failed to give a good reason for its decision and likely couldn't find a good reason if it had to.

Since then, the Senate Commerce Committee has approved legislation that restores the commission's authority.

Burns told the Washington Post that they used "four incredibly appropriate words" that soldiers say in combat all the time.

The filmmaker, however, agreed with PBS' decision to distribute two versions of the film given the "understandable anxiety" among stations over the indecency issue.

"I could have said, 'I won't show this film (with the profanity removed),' " he told the Post. "But the whole point was to bear witness to what the reality of the Second World War was like, and that's what I want to share, with or without the bleeps."