By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 2, 2006
Sinclair Broadcast Group Inc. said yesterday that it will delay airing a documentary about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, until after prime time to avoid the risk of incurring fines from the Federal Communication Commission over indecent language.
The move follows a recent crackdown by the FCC against indecency on the airwaves and action by Congress to increase fines tenfold.
"We think it's an important program, and we don't want to deprive viewers," said Barry M. Faber, general counsel for Sinclair. "But given the uncertainty and potential level of fines, it's simply not a risk we were willing to take."
Sinclair, headquartered in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley, owns two CBS affiliates among the 58 stations that it owns or operates in 36 markets around the country. The stations, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Portland, Maine, will air the documentary at 10:30 p.m. and 11:30 p.m. in their local time zones, respectively -- time slots when some of the words used in the film are not prohibited by FCC decency regulations.
So far, other station owners do not seem to be following Sinclair's lead. A spokesperson for Washington-area CBS affiliate WUSA, which is owned by Gannett Co., said yesterday that the station would air the program at its original time slot of 8 p.m. on Sept. 10. The documentary, called "9/11," was produced in 2002 and has already aired on most CBS stations more than once. When it aired a year after the attacks, it was the most-watched piece of the anniversary coverage and drew in 12 million viewers.
The rough language used by firefighters in the two-hour film raised some controversy when it first aired but drew no fines from the FCC. Spokesmen for the FCC did not return calls late yesterday afternoon seeking comment.
The film contains the same sort of profanity used in the movie "Saving Private Ryan," a fictional account of the D-Day invasion, and in "The Blues: Godfathers and Sons," a documentary produced by Martin Scorsese. Both aired on television and prompted varying rulings from the FCC. In the Scorsese documentary, the expletives were deemed indecent and several public television stations drew fines.
When ABC aired "Saving Private Ryan" in 2004, some affiliates refused to broadcast it for fear of incurring fines. But the FCC later ruled that the film was not indecent.
"This case probably falls somewhere between 'Private Ryan' and 'The Blues,' " Faber said.
Congress recently raised the maximum fines the FCC can levy for indecency to $325,000 from $32,500, prompting caution in the TV industry. The major distributors of television content -- cable, broadcast and satellite companies -- recently embarked on a media campaign to remind parents how to block objectionable material and to demonstrate how seriously the industry takes the indecency issue.
Sinclair is a family-run operation owned by four brothers that has a reputation for independence and unpredictability. In 2004, the company ordered the 62 stations it owned at the time to air a movie attacking the military record of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, but after a public backlash, aired only portions of the film. That year it also sent one of its vice presidents to Iraq to find positive news stories that, it said, were overlooked by the press.
The "9/11" documentary was made by French brothers Jules and Gedeon Naudet. The Sept. 11 attacks took place as the filmmakers were recording footage for what was intended to be a documentary about the nine-month probationary period of a rookie firefighter in New York City, stationed in a firehouse close to the World Trade Center.
One instance of a potentially objectionable phrase in the film, according to Faber, is uttered by a firefighter on probation when he is relieved to find that his comrades survived the collapse of the Twin Towers.