BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shock jocks are not the only ones feeling the hot breath of the FCC on the back of the neck. So has the high tone Public Broadcasting Service. Recently, Masterpiece Theatre, in consultation with PBS, cut not just the usual "F" word, but also the "S" word, formerly acceptable in context, from the British series Prime Suspect. According to Mystery and Masterpiece Theater executive producer Rebecca Eaton, stations could opt for a version that retains the "S" word. Rebecca Eaton joins us now. Welcome to the show.
REBECCA EATON: Thanks for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What do you think kicked all this off? Was there a particular FCC decision that got to PBS?
REBECCA EATON:Well, yes. I think things changed when Bono of U2 made his excited exclamation on national television at the Golden Globes. I think that's when the FCC sat up and took notice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Bono used a, a curse word when he was happily accepting his award. That was deemed unacceptable by the FCC. But on the other hand, the same word used in a different context in, say, a gritty documentary on PBS might actually pass muster. The FCC says it's all about context.
REBECCA EATON:Well that's the problem. The vagueness of the phrase "context matters." And I think the point I would make is that what the FCC might be trying to do, however laudable, of cleaning up prime time television -- make television suitable for family viewing and for children who might wander into the room -- that's a good idea. However, it seems to me that we should be aware this is a housecleaning with a very big broom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Now, people generally regard PBS as sensitive, but it's been out there in the past. The first full nudity on network TV was in a 1973 production of "Steam Bath" that aired on PBS. There was the orgy scene in "I, Claudius," and of course a huge stir over the gay themes in "1Tales of the City." Are you saying that art on PBS is going to be G-rated from now on?
REBECCA EATON:No. Here's what's different. Attention to what goes on prime time television comes and goes. There's a pendulum here. What's different right now, and why you're seeing these changes in Masterpiece Theatre and other programs on PBS is because now if you violate these rules, you can be slapped with a 500,000 dollar fine. That's what's different. It's a hugely uncertain time for all of us and makes our jobs really hard.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And it creates situations that border on the absurd. The New York Times reported that there was a debate over PBS about the - that infamous hotbed of filth, the Antiques Road Show -- and we read in the Times it was actually debated whether to cut a shot of a photo of nude Marilyn Monroe. I mean ultimately the image stayed in, but is this really what we're coming to?
REBECCA EATON:Oh, I don't think so. I mean that's a good story to tell, of course. That's the story everybody's repeating because it's so colorful. My point is that this is not PBS trying to stay in the good graces of the FCC. This is PBS doing its job to protect the stations from these fines. I mean this is not like at Warner Bros. Television. This is not NBC. These stations -- I'm sitting in a station here, Wisconsin Public Television, and I can't imagine what a half a million dollar fine would do to them, and they're not even one of the smaller stations. So it's really real. When these people, all of us, are struggling to get underwriting, to keep the programs on the air, to please a thousand masters, and I think, you know, it's easy to jump on the side that said 'oh, PBS is chicken. You know, Masterpiece Theatre is kowtowing to the FCC.' It isn't that at all. It's trying to be mindful of the reality of what this could do to stations.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fair enough. But it is self-censorship, and this chilling effect -- doesn't it worry you as a broadcaster?
REBECCA EATON:At the moment, it's a headache more than a chilling feeling. It's a headache, particularly when the stakes are so high. My feeling is that this will probably be gone as an issue in months or in a year. There's some reason to think that this is an election year issue. I wouldn't want to be the one to say that. I don't understand that well enough. But I do think that our culture is skirting the edges of putting out too many explicit images, too much obscenity. But PBS is not one of the big offenders. PBS is a little bit caught in the middle.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rebecca, thank you very much.
REBECCA EATON: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Rebecca Eaton is executive producer of the PBS Mystery Series and Masterpiece Theatre.