An average of 7.7 million people watched ABC's unedited broadcast of "Saving Private Ryan" on Veterans Day -- a remarkable number given that viewers in nearly one-third of the country did not have the opportunity to decide for themselves whether the graphic Academy Award-winning, Steven Spielberg-directed, World War II epic was appropriate viewing in their homes.
That's because 65 of ABC's more than 220 affiliate stations appear to have refused to air the movie, including such large markets as Boston, Atlanta, Dallas, Orlando and Detroit, from among the 56 that are metered by Nielsen Media Research and tend to be among the country's biggest markets.
Most of the stations that refused to broadcast the movie are owned by a handful of media companies, including Hearst-Argyle Television, Cox Broadcasting, Scripps Howard Broadcasting, Sinclair Broadcast Group, Young Broadcasting, Citadel Communications, Pappas Telecasting and Belo Corp.
Officials from some of these companies said they felt it was their civic duty to preempt the flick:
"Pappas has decided that the interests of the viewers of KHGI, in the Lincoln-Hastings-Kearney, Neb., market, are best served by preempting this program," that company said in a statement, adding that "Pappas Telecasting and its management have been in the forefront of regulatory efforts to eliminate profanity, indecency and gratuitous violence from network programming, particularly during times when children may be watching."
Some other station-owning companies said they were afraid to run the movie because the expletive uttered by Vice President Cheney on the floor of the Senate back in June is heard many times in the movie. The Federal Communications Commission recently said in a document that the use of that word on broadcast TV is indecent and profane regardless of context. At this time, the FCC can slap a station with a fine of more than $32,000 for each use of the word, and there is an effort in Congress to increase indecency forfeitures to $500,000 per incident. According to the American Family Association, a conservative watchdog group, this word is heard 20 times in "Saving Private Ryan."
Another conservative watchdog group leader, Brent Bozell, lit that fuse when he rallied members of the Parents Television Council to deluge the FCC with indecency complaints against NBC stations over their live broadcast of the 2003 Golden Globe Awards in which U2 lead singer Bono used the word while accepting a trophy.
Ironically, Bozell tried to then run from the ensuing explosion by issuing a statement, two days before ABC's "Saving Private Ryan" broadcast, saying he would not rally his troops over this one, because "context is everything." He gave ABC's broadcast of this movie his official thumbs-up, saying, "The content is not meant to shock, nor is it gratuitous," adding: "We applaud ABC for letting viewers know ahead of time about the graphic nature of the film and that the film would be uncut."
But his conservative competitor, AFA, picked up the flag and ran with it, announcing before Thursday's telecast that it had lined up at least 4,000 of its members to e-mail its form-letter indecency complaint to the FCC if the ABC station in their markets aired the movie. That number would probably grow to tens of thousands after the actual broadcast, as their members enlisted friends and family, an AFA rep told the TV Column earlier this week.
Despite Bozell's best efforts to put the genie back in the bottle, "Saving Private Ryan" was cleared for broadcast in just 71 percent of the country Thursday night, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Even so, ABC managed to beat Fox in prime time night among viewers of all ages with that 7.71 million audience, and tied Fox among 18- to 49-year-olds. It was, in fact, ABC's best performance this season on Thursday night.
"The overwhelming majority of viewers were comfortable with our decision to air 'Saving Private Ryan,' " ABC said yesterday in a statement, adding, "If the FCC asks us to respond, we will." ABC has said it will cover any fines the FCC might decide to slap on stations that broadcast the movie. ABC's deal with DreamWorks SKG to broadcast "Saving Private Ryan" stipulates that the network cannot edit the film.
Now, here are some interesting statistics about the film's TV audience:
When ABC first aired "Saving Private Ryan" to commemorate Veterans Day in 2001, 4 percent of the audience were children between the ages of 2 and 11 years.
When ABC reran the movie to commemorate Veterans Day in 2002, 4 percent of the audience were children between the ages of 2 and 11 years.
When ABC broadcast the movie for a third time this past Thursday, 4 percent of the audience were children between the ages of 2 and 11 years -- 280,000 viewers. (Compare that to the nearly 3 million kids ages 2 to 11 who watched ABC's most recent telecast of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown" -- 26 percent of the audience for that broadcast.)
Meanwhile, by far the largest segment of the movie's audience on Thursday were people 50 and older. Nearly the entire audience -- 7 million of the 7.71 million total -- was 18 or older. It would appear that parents know enough all by themselves not to allow small children to watch this movie.
Over at the FCC late yesterday, a spokeswoman would only report that they had "definitely received a number of" correspondences about the broadcast. According to one source involved with the situation, that includes not only people who complained that the movie aired in their market but also people who complained that the movie did not air in their market.