April 2008

Canadian broadcasting proves too racy for local viewers

By David Grant Long

Blame it on CBS, Janet Jackson and the Federal Communications Commission. Or spicy “adult” shows on ABC and Fox.

But the end result is the same:

Local viewers who depend on the Southwest Colorado Television Translator Association for their TV fare no longer have access to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's programming. The SWCTTA board of directors decided last month to drop the CBC signal from its line-up. Because of recent actions by the FCC, the board became increasingly concerned about possible legal sanctions over a small amount of the CBC content that contained nudity and offensive language, explained SWCTTA manager Wayne Johnson.

But that also means a lot less hockey for local sports fans, and no more “Coronation Street,” in-depth documentaries or news giving a different perspective on world events for other regular viewers.

“I really miss CBC,” said Wendy Davis of Mancos (who contributes columns to the Free Press), a regular viewer. “It was sort of the Canadian PBS, almost no advertisements and great programming, except during hockey season — unless you're a hockey fan!

“It carried lots of comedy programming, even whole comedy festivals from all over Canada. And British PBS mysteries and drama; it was a pleasant refuge from American network programs filled with gratuitous sex and violence.

“I hear there have been a couple complaints, and the TV district is worried about getting sued. Well, phooey, I'm offended by network programming, but I don't threaten to sue NBC or Fox; I turn the channel, or watch a tape.”

Johnson agreed that much of the CBC programming was excellent.

“Let's face it — 95 percent of the station is great — they have some great sitcoms and documentaries,” he told the Free Press. “We knew there would be some unhappy people and I'm sorry.” The CBC programming had been carried by SWCTTA for about 15 years.

But, he explained, Canada has different broadcasting standards than the U.S., and there had been some “inquiries” from the public about the foul language in certain shows, such as late-night comedy-club broadcasts and movies with no dialogue bleeped out, and nudity in other programming.

“It wasn't a specific complaint, but over the last several months we have had people asking about it — ‘How can you carry this programming?’ — so in response to the inquiries, the board had to take action,” Johnson said. Some viewers are definitely unhappy about the change, he said.

“One guy [who objected to dropping the signal] said, ‘Oh, those Biblethumpers,’ but it has nothing to do with Bible-thumpers — it's just what happened.”

Since Jackson's notorious “wardrobe malfunction” during her performance in the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show, in which one of her breasts was briefly exposed, the FCC has been on the warpath, fighting nudity and offensive language on the public airwaves with a zealotry not seen since the puritanical Hayes Commission's battle with movie-makers in the 1930s.

The SWCTA board's concern was not a matter of censorship, explained Johnson, but the possibility of being fined by the FCC, just as CBS was for the Jackson incident, ABC was recently for an 2003 episode of “NYPD Blue” in which a woman's bare derriere was shown, and Fox was penalized for some content of its short-lived raunchy reality show, “Married by America.” The networks, which have financial resources far beyond SWCTA's $300,000 annual budget, are currently fighting those penalties in the U.S. Supreme Court, maintaining the incidents are rare and a matter of free expression at any rate, but the TV district could not afford a potential fine or a legal battle should it come to that.

(The FCC recently decided in the Fox case to levy fines only against affiliates that had actually received complaints from viewers.)

Johnson said he occasionally checks the channels late at night to make sure the system is running smoothly and has been startled by some of the CBC content himself.

“I've been surprised at what I've seen during the night on that channel, and you say, ‘Why don't you block it out at night?’ but are we getting into censorship? And what if something [like that] comes on at 8 p.m.?

“We're not involved in programming — we're involved in re-transmitting and we can't sit there and police one show and let [other] shows go through and have people asking, ‘What did they say in that show that was so bad?’ That's not our job.”

Still, dropping the channel has caused quite a stir among its regular viewers, he said.

“We've got some people who are upset — one woman is missing her ‘Coronation Street’ and another person is missing his hockey and I'm sure we're going to hear from people who like the Canadian Football League and curling.

“I feel bad for them, I really do, but we have a responsibility to [protect] our license,” he said. “I think the board was very prudent in what they did.

“It's not fun to ever make a decision like that, but in the best interest of the TV district the board made that decision.”

Art Thomas, a member of the translator association’s board, said CBC's programming content had come under board scrutiny before, but the particular show with objectionable content had ultimately been cancelled, and no action was taken.

“The subject came up several years ago because of their programming — we tried to blank out the dirty words and that kind of stuff and it didn't work,” Thomas said.

The show that caused concern was a rebroadcast of “The Sopranos,” an HBO cable offering in this country that therefore isn't regulated by the FCC, he explained, but is subject to its regulation when sent over the public airways in the U.S. “But then they [CBC] dropped that program and we let it go and kept it on.

“I know on national television networks here there's some stuff that's just as bad, and they broadcast them right in prime time, but we don't have the liability, that's the thing.”

The network source of a broadcast is held liable by the FCC for content in programming that originates in the U.S., but obviously the agency can't control content coming from other countries.

“In this case, we are the broadcasters, and if there is ever a question of [CBC's] programming, then it falls on us,” Thomas said, “and a $1 million fine would wipe us out.”

So even though it may be erring on the side of caution, the board decided at its March meeting to end the retransmission of CBC.

Thomas agreed that the board's decision to drop CBC was prompted by the sanctions imposed by the FCC on the networks, not because of any specific complaints from local viewers.

“That came as a direct result of this fine levied against CBS and there was more than one channel that got nailed,” he said. “We discussed it and felt if [the FCC] came to us and said, ‘You're fined $2 million,’ we haven't got enough money to fight it.

“We just can't take that chance — we knew that there would be a reaction the day we turned Channel 30 off, but we just felt like we could not gamble with it any more, even though the liability thing . . . was very remote.”

Johnson pointed out that people have the option of subscribing to satellite TV, where just about any sort of programming is available.