PBS Wants the Government to Reexamine Hard Stance on Indecency

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Courtesy of PBS

Is Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood about to get raunchy? Almost certainly not, but on Wednesday, PBS told the Federal Communications Commission that the agency "should revisit what constitutes actionable indecency, what process should be implemented for reviewing and acting on complaints (given that these matters can take many years), and what sanctions are appropriate for violations, particularly in context-related circumstances such as typically arise on an NCE [noncommercial education] station."

PBS was joined in its proposal by National Public Radio, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and America's Public Television Stations.

Together, the entities answered a call issued by the FCC on how to modernize media regulations. Although many observers may not associate PBS with scandalous content, public stations are jumping at the chance to do something about a rule that prohibits broadcast of any indecent material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. local time. They say they don't object to the indecency rule per se but urge the FCC to "return to its long-standing pre-2004 policy of generally deferring to broadcasters' reasonable good faith editorial judgment in these matters," and also, empower staff to "more quickly address complaints, including by disposing of meritless complaints that can negatively impact stations by remaining unresolved for extended periods of time."

President Donald Trump has proposed massive cuts to the budget for the entities that fund PBS. Conservatives have argued that programs like Masterpiece should be funded in the free market. Meanwhile, under new chairman Ajit Pai, the FCC has aggressively pursued deregulation.

In some ways, the comment filed by PBS and NPR (see below) reads like a sardonic reaction to the current political state.

For example, the public stations also propose getting rid of a rule that prohibits the broadcast of information about certain games of chance.

"Public Broadcasting believes that, given the existence of a plethora of now legal gambling and other lotteries, and the ability of stations to broadcast information about such activities, there is no reason the FCC needs to regulate information broadcast about lotteries," states the comment.

PBS and NPR are also suggesting other changes ranging from no longer requiring stations to detail recruitment procedures related to employment discrimination to no longer mandating that stations identify themselves to viewers and listeners. Then there's the recommendation to scale back requirements for educational and informational programming for children, specifically the necessity of an onscreen display for such programming.

"Public television does not waver in its commitment to serving the educational and informational needs of children, and its children's television programming is universally recognized as exemplary," states the comment. "However, the E/I bug requirement, which was first applied to NCE stations in 2004, creates technical and viewability challenges for PBS as it works to innovate by streaming across a wide range of platforms."

It's the proposal on indecency that could cause the most eyebrow-raising.

A footnote points out that this isn't the first time a public station group has urged the FCC to revisit indecency rules. In fact, NPR filed a comment in 2013 that at the time drew little attention but advocated for an "egregious cases" regulatory approach to indecency. The radio giant mentioned that all broadcasters are susceptible to "technical snafus, spontaneous utterances during live programming, including call-in programs, and other unintended occurrences."

PBS joins in such advocacy. There's not much live programming on PBS stations at present that would incite spontaneous curse words, but the network does have shows like Frontline and American Masters that sometimes cover controversial topics. And of course, not everyone will win the lottery.