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FCC Is Now ‘Pvt. Ryan’s’ Battleground

Nov 15, 2004  •  Post A Comment

In what is expected to be a major test case of what constitutes off-color content on broadcast television, the Rev. Donald Wildmon’s American Family Association on Friday was urging its members to file thousands of complaints at the Federal Communications Commission alleging that ABC’s Veterans Day broadcast of “Saving Private Ryan” last Thursday ran afoul of the agency indecency prohibitions.

In an action alert on the group’s Web site, the association said the program included at least 20 uses of the F-word and 12 uses of the S-word during the prime-time broadcast.

“We realize it is important for families, especially our children [to] recognize the sacrifices by our loved ones during wartime,” the alert said. “However, airing excessively profane language during prime-time television hours is not necessary to convey that sacrifice.”

The group also said that ABC had the technology to edit the movie’s language. “If ABC goes unchallenged, the door is open to these words being used any time the networks choose! They can simply say the words were used `in context’ to real life and get away with it.”

In response, an ABC spokesperson said, “The overwhelming number of viewers were comfortable with our decision to air `Private Ryan.”‘ If the FCC asks us to respond to complaints, we will.”

Added Marvin Levy, a marketing executive for DreamWorks, the movie’s producer, “This is America and we have freedom of speech. They’re entitled to do it, but we feel it’s misguided because of what this film is and what it presents.”

The threat to flood the FCC with indecency complaints represented yet another twist in a week full of surprises about “Private Ryan,” particularly since the movie had already aired uncut on ABC twice previously, in 2001 and 2002, without major repercussions.

But concerns about indecency had soared so high last week that 66 ABC affiliates reaching 36 percent of the nation’s TV households refused to carry the ABC broadcast of “Private Ryan” last week, according to a TV Week source. Affiliates said the mass pre-emption underscored just how big of a mess the FCC has made of its indecency rules since Janet Jackson exposed her breast on CBS’s coverage of the Super Bowl halftime show early this year. “This is the aftershock to the big chill,” said Wade Hargrove, counsel to the ABC affiliates association.

“We don’t know what the FCC is going to do,” added Jim Keelor, president and chief operating officer of Liberty Corp., which pre-empted “Private Ryan” on its four ABC affiliates. “They seem to have a fractured and juvenile approach to program content these days.”

Industry sources said some affiliates had been urging their colleagues to stand with the network on the program, on the argument that “Private Ryan” presented an ideal test case to force the FCC to overturn recent precedent and make clear that context is crucial to indecency determinations.

“I look forward to that battle,” said Jonathan Rintels, executive director of the watchdog Center for Creative Voices in the Media.

In the behind-the-scenes effort to persuade ABC affiliates to carry the program, ABC network representatives agreed to beef up on-air advisories and to indemnify affiliates for any fines.

No Shift to Safe Harbor

One of the network’s arguments was that the FCC dismissed a complaint from the American Family Association about ABC’s airing of the Academy Award-winning movie in 2002.

But many affiliates were still concerned because the FCC’s Golden Globes decision involving Bono earlier this year held that use of the F-word and similar expressions ran afoul of the agency’s indecency prohibitions, regardless of the context in which they were used.

Also getting the attention of some affiliates was a recent decision by the FCC fining Fox Broadcasting Co. and its affiliates $1.183 million for carrying an allegedly indecent episode of the reality show “Married by America.” That decision signaled that affiliates were now being held accountable for network programming. Previously, the FCC had limited punishment to the network and its owned stations.

Several affiliates said they tried to work out carriage compromises with the network over the programming. But ABC said the network and stations were contractually blocked from editing the film’s language.

In addition, ABC refused to allow the affiliates to shift the show to a 10 p.m. start-the beginning of the FCC’s 10 p.m.-6 a.m. “safe harbor” for adult programming.

Some affiliates also complained that the FCC refused their pleas for advance waivers making clear that they wouldn’t be punished for airing the movie.

“If we receive a complaint, we will look into it,” said an FCC spokesperson. “But it would be censorship for us to tell people what they could and couldn’t air.”

Said Sinclair Broadcast Group, with eight ABC affiliates, “Although we do not personally believe that this movie is indecent in any manner, we believe the FCC guidelines and ABC’s refusal to delay the broadcast require us to pre-empt the movie.”

“We asked ABC for permission to run the movie after 10 p.m. to remove if from the so-called family viewing time period and ABC would not allow that, nor would it give permission for us to edit out the graphic language,” said Greg Stone, VP and general manager of Cox Television-owned ABC affiliate WSB-TV in Atlanta. “With no options available regarding the preparation of the movie or altering the start time, we decided to pre-empt the network.”

Andy Fisher, head of Cox’s broadcast group, said none of Cox’s ABC affiliates ran the movie. He said that the FCC’s decision in the Golden Globes case “created a substantial ambiguity” in terms of FCC policy. Previously he said, the context was a consideration, but now, it appears context doesn’t matter.

About ABC refusal to let WSB and other Cox ABC affiliates run the movie after 10 p.m. when family hour restrictions didn’t apply, Mr. Fisher said, “I don’t understand why they didn’t want the movie shown at all.”

Among the groups that aired the program were Post-Newsweek Stations, with two ABC affiliates, and Allbritton Communications, with eight ABC affiliates.

“We saw absolutely no reason not to air it,” said Alan Frank, president and CEO of Post-Newsweek Stations.

“We are at war.” Mr. Frank added. “It’s a great movie about war. It’s a true story and it honors soldiers.”

Added Jerry Fritz, Allbritton senior VP for legal and strategic affairs, “We’re confident that the commission and staff will give thoughtful consideration and conclude in these circumstances that context matters.”

Andrew Schwartzman, president of the activist Media Access Project, said, “I can’t imagine the FCC would find this broadcast indecent. If that’s inconsistent with the Golden Globes decision, that’s the FCC’s problem. The Golden Globes decision is indefensible.”

Among the major groups that declined to carry the movie were Hearst-Argyle Television, with 13 ABC affiliates; Sinclair Broadcast Group, with eight ABC affiliates; Scripps Howard, with six ABC affiliates; Belo Corp., with four ABC affiliates; Liberty Corp., with four ABC affiliates; Citadel Communications, with three ABC affiliates; Cox Television, with three ABC affiliates; and Pappas Telecommunications, with one ABC affiliate.

In a statement Friday morning, the ABC Network said the “Private Ryan” broadcast was a “timely tribute to the sacrifices and valor of all Americans engaged in service to their country, past and present, who know first-hand the devastating realities of war. This was the third time ABC has broadcast this Academy Award-winning, true-to-life historical drama, and it was presented in just the same spirit as our commemorative telecasts in 2001 and 2002. As before, the broadcast of `Saving Private Ryan’ contained appropriate and clear advisories and parental guidelines to alert viewers to the film’s realistic depiction of war. ABC applauds the majority of its local television affiliates across the country who chose to be part of this important Veteran’s Day television event. We also thank Senator John McCain and Dr. Harold Baumgarten, both prominent veterans, w
ho appeared on ABC to introduce `Saving Private Ryan’ and to note its significance for this and future generations.”

Said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, “There’s enormous confusion out there among broadcast stations about what they can and cannot air, and this just puts a spotlight on that concern.”

Jon Lafayette contributed to this report.