Many Stations Gag "Tongues Untied"  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   September 1991

Many Stations Gag "Tongues Untied"   

By Nicols Fox
Nicols Fox writes about media and culture from Bass Harbor, Maine.      


A no-holds-barred film about black gay men caused public television station managers some high anxiety this summer as they debated whether it was appropriate for their audiences. The film, "Tongues Untied," aired July 16 as part of the "P.O.V" (point of view) series. But a number of stations gave it a miss.

According to a survey by the Rev. Donald Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, 195 of 320 stations refused to air the film. PBS says 127 of its stations didn't show it.

"Tongues Untied," produced and directed by Marlon Riggs, has won at least 16 awards, including the L.A. Film Critics Circle Award for "best independent/experimental work," and appeared in at least eight film festivals.

But Wildmon, who previously organized the boycott against Martin Scorsese's film "The Last Temptation of Christ" and has led the attack on the National Endowment for the Arts, targeted the film in a newsletter. In a turnaround from his usual approach Wildmon advised his readers to watch the program "to see for themselves how their tax dollars are being spent."

The "P.O.V." series received $250,000 from the endowment although none of it was used to produce the film. Marlon Riggs received a $5,000 grant from the Rocky Mountain Film Center, which receives some endowment funding.

Producers of the four-year-old series are accustomed to controversy. Touchy topics such as sexism, living with AIDS, and a sex-change operation are standard "P.O.V." fare. "Tongues" looks directly at racism and white and black homophobia and punctuates its highly political message with chants of "touch it, taste it, lick it, suck it."

But viewers couldn't respond to what they could not see. Stations in Houston, Columbia, S.C., Kansas City, Albuquerque and other cities – including all those in Idaho and Oregon – decided their markets weren't up to it.

Bernard Roscetti, station manager for television of Maine Public Broadcasting, was one of those who pulled it from the series. "It is in-your-face confrontational," he says. The film, which uses bold street language, "taunts, flaunts and confronts. It actually encourages stereotypical attitudes," he says. He found it inappropriate for Maine viewers.

Some stations flip-flopped. The film was originally scheduled to air on KNCT and KCTF in Killeen and Waco, Texas, until "religious radio stations started making noise," says Noel Smith, manager for both stations. Then, after "further review," he and his staff decided the program "failed to measure up." He objected to certain "gratuitous" elements; a second look had apparently revealed frontal nudity the station missed on the first screening.

"P.O.V." Executive Producer Marc N. Weiss calls the cancellations a "symptom of a larger problem in society." In a climate of ever-shrinking public television budgets, with a segment of viewers primed to attack, station managers aren't willing to risk offending, he says.

But the program aired in major markets such as Boston, New York and L.A. Series co-producer Ellen Schneider says the fact that the film was rejected in only 18 of the 50 major markets means that more than 50 percent of viewers nationwide had the opportunity to see what the fuss was about.

Some stations, like Boston's WGBH, aired the program at the regularly scheduled time. Others, like Seattle's KCTS and Miami's WPBT, opted for the after-midnight audience. Jack Gibson of WPBT says he felt it was not his place "to prevent [the public] from seeing it should they choose to do so." On the other hand Jesse Bowers, vice president of programming for South Carolina Educational Television, says public television stations have to serve their local communities. SCETV refused to air it.

The controversy has pointed up the advantage of having competing stations in a market. In Denver KRMA General Manager Don Johnson and his staff found the film "not what we feel is acceptable and proper for our community." But nearby KBDI, with potentially the same viewers, ran it. Eleven years ago KRMA fought KBDI's license application, arguing that Denver didn't need another PBS affiliate.

Diane Markrow, KBDI's director of programming, says two-thirds of the calls her station received about the program were supportive. So many callers asked how to become a member of the station that Markrow aired it a second time during the station's membership drive. In Maine, Roscetti fielded more than 35 calls protesting his decision to cancel.

Riggs' film was intended to demonstrate the difficulty of being a black male homosexual in America. Ironically, the controversy has more than made his point.

Homosexuality may become a hands-off topic for public television. "Stop the Church," a film looking at ongoing differences of opinion between gay rights advocates and Cardinal John O'Connor, was pulled in early August from the "P.O.V." series by "P.O.V." executives themselves.

Says David M. Davis, president and CEO of "P.O.V.," "`Tongues Untied' put staffs of many stations through tremendous stress. In the aftermath of that broadcast, it would be irresponsible, with so little notice, to expect stations to handle the level of press interest and viewer response 'Stop the Church' is likely to generate."

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