Saving Barney Fife
By Staff -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/14/2004 7:00:00 PM
A collection of ABC affiliates lodged a Veterans Day counteroffensive in the war for control of their own content.
The stations prempting the Oscar-winning Saving Private Ryan. The rationale: The film is not at all indecent, but post-Bono, how's a broadcaster to know?
The unspoken backstory: The station groups wanted the FCC— and the public—to recognize how confused and backward the commission's new tougher “indecency” rules have become by yanking a film that has rough language but certainly isn't indecent, and stands as a kind of cinematic salute to brave World War II soldiers.
But instead of that, last week one station pointedly replaced Ryan with Return to Mayberry, featuring Sheriff Andy Taylor and bumbling Barney Fife. What a symbolic substitution.
The protest by broadcasters combined legitimate concern (their licenses) with a caustic shot across regulators' bow.
Ever since the FCC reversed itself in the Bono case and then made a laughingstock of itself with Janet Jackson, broadcasters who don't want to risk their licenses can't be too careful. ABC offered to indemnify affiliates against potential fines. It also pointed to a letter the FCC sent in 2002 to Rev. Donald Wildmon, the right wing TV activist, in which it opined that Private Ryan was not indecent. The FCC said then that Ryan's profanity was fleeting and was not taking the name of God in vain; that was then the standard for judging indecency. But the rules changed. Now, that kind of talk is actionable, regardless of context.
FCC, Chairman Michael Powell points out the commission is not in the business of prior restraint. Of course, it is, rather cleverly, even malovently: Its new, broad and vague indecency rules leave stations restraining themselves. By banning Ryan, stations restrained themselves only to demonstrate how dangerously daft the rules can be. We're pleased they picked a fight. Our urgent advice: Keep up the battle.
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