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

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."

ABC executives declined to discuss the matter with The TV Column. In a statement, the network noted the broadcast would contain 11 advisories, including one at every ad break.

And, in one of those politics-makes-strange-bedfellows moments, ABC even recruited Parents Television Council pit bull Brent Bozell to put out a statement giving a big thumbs-up to the broadcast.

Bozell is the guy who launched the successful campaign to get the FCC to declare Bono's Golden Globe comment indecent. He's also credited with initiating the letter-writing campaign about the Super Bowl incident that so impressed FCC Chairman Michael Powell. "No television event has ever received as many complaints from the American public -- over 540,000 -- as the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show produced by CBS," Powell marveled in his statement accompanying the FCC's announcement it would slap CBS stations with that record-setting fine.

"Context is everything," Bozell says in the statement. "We agreed with the FCC on its ruling that the airing of 'Schindler's List' on television was not indecent and we feel that 'Saving Private Ryan' is in the same category. In both films, the content is not meant to shock, nor is it gratuitous. We applaud ABC for letting viewers know ahead of time about the graphic nature of the film and that the film would be uncut.

"We will not be filing an indecency complaint with the FCC over the airing of this film," Bozell added reassuringly.

But Parents Television Council didn't attack ABC stations the first time they aired "Saving Private Ryan." The American Family Association, aka Donald Wildmon's conservative watchdog group, did.

These days the AFA is focusing on trying to get advertisers to promise not to buy time in ABC's new hit series "Desperate Housewives" because it features a housewife who's having an affair with her high-school-age gardener and female neighbors discussing their relationships with their husbands over dinner. But back in 2001, the AFA went after ABC over "Saving Private Ryan," filing a complaint with the FCC in hopes it would slap the stations with an indecency fine. In its complaint, the AFA noted the movie's "violence, bloodshed, language and profanity," according to a letter of response from the FCC, a copy of which was obtained by The TV Column.

Last week's presidential election also played into Citadel's decision to scrap tonight's unedited broadcast of "Saving Private Ryan" and replace it with the TV movie "Return to Mayberry."

"We're just coming off an election where moral issues were cited as a reason by people voting one way or another and, in my opinion, the commissioners are fearful of the new Congress," Cole told the Associated Press.

Staff writer John Maynard contributed to this report.

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