18 ABC stations drop ''Private Ryan'' over FCC fears -- Broadcasters worry that the post-Janet indecency crackdown could target them for airing the Oscar-winning WWII drama uncut

By Gary Susman
November 11, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

ABC plans to air Saving Private Ryan unedited on Thursday night, just as it did on Veterans Day in 2001 and 2002. This year, however, at least 18 ABC stations covering some 35 percent of the country will be airing more innocuous fare like Return to Mayberry or Coming to America. The reason? In a year marked by an increased crackdown on broadcast content by the Federal Communications Commission, the stations are worried that the World War II drama’s R-rated content will run afoul of the FCC’s more stringent enforcement of indecency regulations.

ABC has said it will double the number of content warnings during the broadcast. However, it will not allow affiliates to edit scenes or bleep the language because the network’s contract with the film’s director, Steven Spielberg, bars it from making any changes. According to the Hollywood Reporter, ABC also declined several affiliates’ requests to air the movie after 10 p.m., outside the ”safe harbor” period, when FCC standards relax because children are presumably asleep.

At issue, maybe even more than the graphic violence, is the movie’s profanity. Responding to a complaint about the 2001 airing, the commission found no wrongdoing, noting that the profanity wasn’t used in a sexual context. This year, however, the post-Janet Jackson FCC ruled that NBC was in violation for a live broadcast in which U2’s Bono used the F-word in a nonsexual context while accepting an award. (Noting that the ruling was changing precedent, FCC chairman Michael Powell said at the time, ”Prospectively, parties are on notice that they could now face significant penalties for similar violations.”) However, the FCC has declined to answer affiliates’ questions about whether a Ryan broadcast might now be considered indecent ”because that would be censorship,” FCC spokeswoman Janice Wise tells the Reporter. ”If we get a complaint, we’ll act on it.”

”The inconsistent manner in which the FCC is choosing to apply these rules puts TV stations like ours in a most difficult position,” said Citadel Communications president Raymond Cole in a statement explaining why Citadel’s three stations in Iowa and Nebraska had dropped Ryan. ”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.? With the current FCC, we just don’t know.” Last week’s election results also made broadcasters wary, Cole told the Associated Press. ”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.

Even the Parents Television Council, a conservative watchdog group that often complains about network programming it deems unsuitable for children, believes ABC should be able to air the unedited Ryan without fear. ”Context is everything. We agreed with the FCC on its ruling that the airing of Schindler’s List on television was not indecent and we feel that Saving Private Ryan is in the same category,” said PTC president L. Brent Bozell in a statement. ”In both films, the content is not meant to shock, nor is it gratuitous. We applaud ABC for letting viewers know ahead of time about the graphic nature of the film and that the film would be uncut.”