Killing "Private Ryan"

TV stations boycott a Veterans Day broadcast of Spielberg's film amid new FCC threats.

Published November 12, 2004 2:52PM (EST)

More than 20 American TV stations Thursday night boycotted a Veterans Day screening of war movie "Saving Private Ryan" because of fears that they would be censured by a newly aggressive television regulator over the movie's violence and graphic language. Network executives said the rebellion by affiliates of the ABC television network in Dallas, Atlanta, Phoenix and other leading markets was sparked by fears of reprisals from the Federal Communications Commission.

The FCC has commanded new respect and fear among broadcasters after imposing heavy penalties on CBS and its affiliates after this year's Super Bowl, when singer Janet Jackson exposed her breast during the halftime show, provoking widespread outrage.

However, observers feel Thursday's display of nerves about "Saving Private Ryan" descends to new levels of timidity. The Steven Spielberg film aired uncut on ABC television in 2001 and 2002, and the FCC threw out the sole complaint against the film from the American Family Association. But station owners say they, and the FCC, operate in a different climate this year.

"It would clearly have been our preference to run the movie. We think it's a patriotic, artistic tribute to our fighting forces," Ray Cole, president of Citadel Communications, which owns three Midwestern stations, told the Associated Press. But Cole said fear of punishment from the FCC -- and a belief among broadcasters that last week's elections revealed growing conservatism in the U.S. -- had forced the stations into caution. "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," he said.

After the FCC refused to guarantee stations that they could broadcast the film without fear of repercussion, network executives said they were taking no chances. The backlash over the Janet Jackson episode brought in a tough new regime of television regulation. After the FCC was besieged by letters from some half a million Americans furious at the split-second view of Jackson's breast, CBS-owned stations were fined $550,000 for airing the offending segment.

Viacom, CBS's owner, said this week that the fine was illogical because no one at Viacom or CBS, which broadcast the Super Bowl, knew that fellow singer Justin Timberlake would yank off Jackson's costume.

Two months after the incident it was the turn of NBC, which broadcasts the Golden Globe Awards, to run afoul of the FCC. In a ruling last March the commission censured rock star Bono for saying "fuck" during a live broadcast of the awards program, and went on to warn NBC stations that any use of the word would be punished.

The soldiers in "Private Ryan," which is set in the fierce battles of D-Day, swear regularly throughout the picture, exposing the broadcasters to the risk of heavy penalties. "This is not about whether the movie is worth airing in prime time," Greg Stone, the vice president of Atlanta's WSB station, said in a statement. "The FCC's recent decision in the Bono case reversed years of prior policy that the context of language matters. At this point the local broadcast community cannot get any contemporaneous clarification from the FCC that this movie is not in violation of the commission's newly articulated standard."

Like other ABC affiliates, WSB had asked the network for permission to air the movie after 10 p.m. -- outside the slot for family viewing -- or to cut out potentially offensive language. ABC refused, citing agreements with Spielberg that the film not be edited, and offered to pay if the stations were fined. However, the stations argued they could jeopardize their licenses if they were censured by the FCC. WSB Thursday night was going to air a special on former President Jimmy Carter instead.

By Suzanne Goldenberg

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