Perplexing pixelations

July 30, 2006

You may not know it, but you are adept at lip reading. That's the only conclusion we can draw from new censorship guidelines crafted by lawyers for the Public Broadcasting Service, whose 354 member stations - including Maryland's own MPT - could face hefty fines if they allow you to see someone even mouthing salty language in one of their prime-time shows.

Reacting to the Federal Communications Commission's newfound muscle in its campaign against what it considers to be indecent programming and profane language, the lawyers maintain that simply bleeping over certain words is no longer sufficient. You, the viewer, can discern the naughty talk even if you can't hear it. The solution is to digitally obscure, or pixelate, the speaker's lips during those moments when the offensive words are uttered.

Soapbox critics of the pixelation directive fear that PBS and its independent filmmakers will be forced to turn what could be candid and sometimes graphic sound bites into silly image manipulations if they want to broadcast the programs during the FCC's squeaky-clean 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. air time. To be fair, the PBS legal bunch is trying to protect the stations from incurring draconian FCC fines that could mount up to $325,000 per word. President Bush, who doesn't mind dropping a four-letter word now and then when he thinks the cameras and mikes are off, last month signed the fines into law.

We agree with the critics but think the pixelation policy is perplexing in itself. Humans are instinctively curious and imaginative. Presented with an audio bleep and a video blur, you're likely to go through a handful of dirty words just trying to figure out what you were deprived of hearing. What's next, scrambling our brains?

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