ABC Affiliates Pre-Empt “Saving Private Ryan” Fearing FCC Sanctions
ABC planned to celebrate Veteran’s Day in the US with the showing of “Saving Private Ryan,” the Steven Speilberg/Tom Hanks tribute to the greatest generation, the D-Day invasion and common human decency. The film is incredibly realistic, and during the first twenty minutes or so, theatre audiences were treated to combat as vicious and as brutal as celluloid could be. On the small-screen, it is only marginally less nerve-shattering. Given the realism, it comes as no surprise that soldiers on occasion break into profanity, obscenity and blasphemy. ABC affiliates in Alabama, Georgia, Iowa, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina and West Virginia have seen fit to pre-empt this film because the FCC might fine them for broadcasting such verbiage prior to 10 at night. It is a decision unworthy of Private Ryan and his compatriots.
After the world caught a glimpse of Janet Jackson’s breast during the Super Bowl half-time show, the FCC decided to police the airwaves more rigorously. As a result, WOI-TV in Des Moines Iowa wondered on its website, “Would the FCC conclude that the movie has sufficient social, artistic, literary, historical or other kinds of value that would protect us from breaking the law? With the current FCC, we just don't know." Mr. Hanks did not win an Oscar for his performance, though he was nominated. Mr. Speilberg, though, did get the little gold statue for Best Director. And the picture did get four other Oscars. That should cover “redeeming qualities” to prevent an indecency fine.
ABC headquarters also bears a bit of the blame. WSB-TV in Atlanta said that ABC would let it put the film on after 10 pm “nor would it give permission for us to edit out the graphic language. With no options available regarding the preparation of the movie or altering the start time, we decided to pre-empt the network on this night." If the late election taught nothing else, the people on the coasts have different attitudes than the people in the middle of the country, and maybe, letting local affiliates make some decision about the film would have been in order.
The FCC could have been a bit less boneheaded, too. A Reuters report had Janice Wise, spokeswoman for the FCC's enforcement bureau, saying that if the FCC made a decision before the broadcast about the film’s appropriateness, “that would be censorship." Pre-emption is a different term, but all the same “Saving Private Ryan” wasn’t on TV at the VA hospital in Des Moines, unless it had cable. Perhaps, FCC Chairman Michael Powell (whose father is a rather famous American general with the Christian name Colin) could have given the network and the TV stations some unofficial guidance, such as “I’ll be damned if I’ll fine you for it.”
In the end, this sorry episode was about money. Local station managers were afraid of having to pay a fine. At this moment, there are men and women in uniform in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the direct spiritual descendants of very Private Ryan. Some Americans will still bear any burden and pay any price. Others are worried about shareholder value and their careers. The latter are in the ascendancy these days.
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