'Saving Private Ryan': A New Casualty of the Indecency War

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By Lisa de Moraes
Thursday, November 11, 2004

ABC suits scrambled yesterday to try to contain the mutiny among stations that refuse to air tonight's broadcast of the unedited "Saving Private Ryan," citing indecency concerns.

At press time, ABC stations owned by Cox Television, Citadel Communications, Belo Corp., Hearst-Argyle and Scripps Howard Broadcasting, among others, had declined to air the 1998 Academy Award-winning movie. They say they're afraid the film's scenes of extreme violence and intense adult language will lead to sanctions by the Federal Communications Commission under its new, supersize anti-indecency standards. Among those preempting the World War II movie are stations in Dallas (the country's seventh largest television market), Atlanta (No. 9), Tampa (No. 13), Phoenix (No. 15) and Orlando (No. 20).

Ironically, most of them already aired "Saving Private Ryan" when ABC ran it, unedited, to commemorate Veterans Day in 2001 and 2002. Of course, those broadcasts predated the FCC's decision to slap CBS-owned TV stations with a record $550,000 fine over the national debut of Janet Jackson's breast at the Super Bowl, and the commission's ruling that a rocker's spontaneous use of an expletive at a trophy show broadcast by NBC was indecent and profane.

ABC has told its affiliate stations it would cover any fine the FCC might choose to impose over the movie broadcast. However, should the FCC fine a station, that could be used against it when its license comes up for renewal.

"The Federal Communications Commission has changed its standards for certain content related to programming broadcast before 10 p.m.," Ray Cole, president of Citadel Communications, said in a news release. Citadel's ABC affiliates in Des Moines and Sioux City, Iowa, and Lincoln, Neb., are preempting the movie.

Cole told The TV Column that Citadel attempted to get an advance waiver from the FCC but the commission refused, saying that stations need to "exercise their own good-faith judgment." The FCC declined to comment on any aspect of this story.

"Without an advance waiver from the FCC . . . we're not going to present the movie in prime time," Cole said. "Under strict interpretation of the indecency rules we do not see any way possible to air this movie. To be put in this position is unfortunate, and reflects the timidity that exists at the commission right now."

According to Cox's Atlanta station general manager, Greg Stone, the company asked ABC for permission to edit the film or air it outside prime time but was turned down. According to news reports, ABC's broadcast rights preclude any editing. Cox's ABC affiliates in Orlando, Atlanta and Charlotte will not air the movie.

On Atlanta's WSB-TV Web site, Stone cited the FCC's March ruling that it was both indecent and profane when NBC broadcast live Bono exclaiming, "This is really, really [expletive] brilliant!" as he picked up his trophy at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards. That same word comes up often in the movie. The Bono ruling "reversed years of prior policy that the context of language matters," Stone said.

Belo is pulling the broadcast from all four of its ABC stations, in Dallas, Austin, Louisville and Hampton-Norfolk. Belo stations ran the movie in 2001 and '02, but "sensitivity to these kind of matters has changed over the last few years," Belo Vice President Carey Hendrickson explained to The TV Column.

"Community tastes are not constant and change over time. Every time something like this comes up, you have to evaluate and reevaluate; we felt this was appropriate for this time."

Scripps Howard has pulled the movie from all five of its ABC affiliates, in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Phoenix and Tampa, Poynter.com reported. In a statement, the company said it did so because "recent federal regulatory decisions on profanity appear to make it clear the Federal Communications Commission prohibits the broadcast of the type of profanity used in the movie. Clear unequivocal warnings to viewers . . . do not appear to mitigate a TV station's obligation to prohibit the broadcast of profane language prior to 10 p.m."


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