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Is FCC Killing Private Ryan?

ABC affiliates couldn't rescue Private Ryan.
Fearing backlash and possible fines from the Federal Communications Commission,
about 30 ABC stations preempted a Veterans Day screening of the Oscar-winning
World War II epic, which includes graphic violence and four-letter words. The
FCC did not respond to station inquiries but said it received multiple
complaints about the broadcast.

To maneuver through the potential minefield, executives at some
stations, including Hearst-Argyle's ABC affiliates and KCAU in Sioux City,
Iowa, proposed a post-10 p.m. airing, the “safe harbor” for indecency. ABC
turned down all requests. “We are left with the choice of either broadcasting
the programming at 8 p.m. and incurring serious regulatory exposure by the FCC
or not broadcasting the movie at all,” read a Hearst-Argyle statement.

At the same time, a refusal to air Ryan sent a
clear message to the FCC: Look what you made us do. Other stations that
preempted the film included Sinclair Broadcast Group's eight ABC stations;
Scripps Howard's 11 ABC affiliates; Belo Corp.'s five ABC stations; WSB,
the Cox ABC affiliate in Atlanta; a Pappas Telecasting station in Nebraska; and
Citadel Communications Corp.'s three stations, including WOI Des Moines,
Iowa. Most stations aired local programming and family-friendly fare instead,
including Return to Mayberry on KCAU.

Editing the film wasn't an option, either. ABC's deal with
DreamWorks SKG prohibits the broadcaster from altering it. So ABC aired the
film unedited—as it did without incident in 2001 and 2002. The network told
some stations it would pay any FCC fines. Several asked the FCC to pre-clear
the show, but the commission is not allowed to do that.

“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? Can a movie with an 'M' rating, however prestigious
the production or poignant the subject matter, be shown before 10 p.m.?”
asked Citadel President and COO Ray Cole in an on-air advisory. “The
inconsistent manner in which the FCC is choosing to apply these rules puts TV
stations like ours in a difficult position.”

Still, Ryan aired in the big markets, since ABC
owns WABC New York, KABC Los Angeles and WLS Chicago, in addition to seven
other stations. Clear Channel's seven ABC stations did air the movie, as did
McGraw-Hill's four affiliates but only after vetting it with attorneys. ABC
aired a stern warning in on-air promotions and during the telecast.

The highest-profile indecency watchdog, the Parents Television Council,
says it will not file complaints against Saving Private
. PTC President Brent Bozell recalled the FCC's ruling that
Schindler's List, which has nudity, was not indecent.
Ryan is in the same category,” he says. “In both
films, the content is not meant to shock, nor is it gratuitous.”

ABC did make concessions to its affiliates. It allowed them to move the
broadcast ahead by 21 minutes—say, from 8 p.m. ET to 7:39—so the movie
could end exactly at 11 p.m. and stations' newscasts would not be at a
competitive disadvantage. It being a sweeps period, when stations determine
their ad rates, ABC thought it fair not to push the 11 p.m. news, among a
station's most profitable programs, back to almost 11:30 p.m.

The film was introduced by Vietnam veteran Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz),
who told B&C he doesn't consider the film indecent.
The movie “is a powerful and important depiction of the sacrifices made for
our country and for freedom during World War II,” he says. “While it
contains violence and profanity, these are not shown in a gratuitous manner.
The FCC faces the difficult task of determining when content is indecent, ...
and in my estimation, [Saving Private Ryan] does not come
close to crossing that line.”

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