Pre-Empting Private Ryan

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Saying they can't take the chance of running afoul of tougher FCC indecency enforcement, Sinclair Broadcast Group and Scripps Howard's ABC affiliates (11 stations in all), the Cox ABC affiliate in Atlanta, WSB, a Pappas Telecasting station in Nebraska and at least one of Citadel Communications Corp.'s stations -- WOI Des Moines, Iowa -- confirmed that they are not planning to air Saving Private Ryan, ABC's unedited Veteran's Day broadcast of the Oscar-winning theatrical.

Another Citadel station, KCAU, Sioux City, Iowa, will air the film, but not until 10:30 (the indecency "safe harbor" begins at 10 p.m.), instead running a music special and Return to Mayberry at 7-10, when Ryan was to have aired.
The film is being introduced by Vietnam veteran and former prisoner of war John McCain (R-Ariz), who told B&C he did not think the film was indecent.
"Saving Private Ryan is a powerful and important depiction of the sacrifices made for our country and for freedom during World War II," McCain said. "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, the content of this film, aired in the context of a national holiday, paying tribute to our veterans, and with appropriate warnings to parents, does not come close to crossing that line."
Cox and Hearst-Argyle are also said to be considering preempting the film, according to executives at other stations. A Cox station executive said that group is letting individual stations make the call.

McGraw Hill decided to run the film on its four affiliates, but only after vetting it with attorneys "given the new climate," said group head Ed Quinn.
The decision to pull or move the show is being billed as a reaction to the FCC crackdown on indecency.

ABC has aired the movie twice (as has WOI)--in 2001 and 2002--both times uncut and including profanity and graphic violence. Part of their deal with director Steven Spielberg is that the movie airs uncut.

But the FCC's standards have changed since then, with the FCC saying profanity is now actionable, though not necessarily so. ABC says it told worried stations it would indemnify them against fines, but indecency liability can involved a station's license as well as its pocketbook.

In a statement being prepared as a broadcast advisory, WOI-TV President Ray Cole said:

"As many of you may be aware, the Federal Communications Commission has changed its standards for certain content related to programming broadcast before 10 p.m.  These changes followed the Janet Jackson incident at the Super Bowl earlier this year.

"The inconsistent manner in which the FCC is choosing to apply these rules puts TV stations like ours in a most difficult position.

"As this relates to Saving Private Ryan, our concern centers on whether the FCC would consider the context in which the intense adult language and graphic battleground violence is presented in the movie.

 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.  This is the case even though this same movie has been broadcast in prime time twice before on this station without complaint.  Adding to our frustration is the fact that a fine motion picture like Saving Private Ryan can be shown on cable or satellite without any government agency restriction or regulation.

We regret that we are not able to broadcast a patriotic, artistic tribute to our fighting forces like Saving Private Ryan. However, on this Veterans Day, we do wish to pay tribute to all the men and women –past and present –who so nobly serve our country."

Scripps Howard station SVP William Peterson agreed both that it was a fine film and that his station group couldn't risk airing it, saying in his statement:
“The movie contains profanity to help depict the confusion, violence and horror of combat in the Normandy Invasion. Due to graphic violence and intense adult language, the movie is rated “TVMA”.

"While it has been broadcast twice before, recent federal regulatory decisions on profanity appear to make it clear the Federal Communications Commission prohibits the broadcast of the type of profanity used in the movie. Clear unequivocal warnings to viewers about the mature language and violent content do not appear to mitigate a TV station’s obligation to prohibit the broadcast of profane language prior to 10 p.m.

“We do not believe we have the contractual right to edit the movie to remove the profanity and ABC has mandated that the movie be broadcast as scheduled. If the profanity cannot be edited and the profanity cannot be broadcast, then the movie will not be cleared for broadcast on our TV stations in this current regulatory environment.”

Pappas had this to say:

“Many ABC affiliates are airing the extraordinary film ‘Saving Private Ryan’ Thursday night in Prime-time.However, Pappas Telecasting Companies has decided that the interests of the viewers of KHGI, in the Lincoln-Hastings-Kearney, Nebraska market, are best served by pre-empting this program.
"This decision was made reluctantly, and only after Pappas Telecasting sought permission to edit profane language from this fine film, and such permission was refused.Other ABC affiliates have reportedly made this same decision for the following reasons.

"As our viewers know, Pappas Telecasting and its management have been in the forefront of regulatory efforts to eliminate profanity, indecency, and gratuitous violence from network programming, particularly during times when children may be watching.
"Moreover, as is evidenced by recent decisions of the Federal Communications Commission, stations that air network programming with indecent or profane content are subject to significant fines and the threat of license revocation.For these reasons, although we have aired ‘Saving Private Ryan’ in years past, we are pre-empting it Thursday evening and instead are airing the feature film ‘Father of the Bride 2,‘ starring Steve Martin and Diane Keaton, from 7-9 p.m., followed by ‘America’s Next Top Model,’ hosted by Tyra Banks, from 9-10 pm. “

Earlier in the day, Motion Picture Association of America President Dan Glickman was asked during a Q&A  about Ryan's airing uncut on TV. He said he felt it was the kind of movie that ought to air on television for its realistic portrayal of a soldier's experience.--Allison Romano contributed to this story.

Stations that do air the movie won't get into trouble with arguably the highest-profile indecency watchdog, the Parents Television Council, which says it will file no complaints against Ryan.

“Context is everything," said PTC President Brent Bozell. "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.  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."

The FCC had not put out any statement in response to the station moves, but when asked by legislators and others to pass judgment on a Sinclair John Kerry special before it aired, FCC Chairman Michael Powell pointed out it would be illegal prior restraint for the FCC to rule on a show's content before it aired.

Private Ryan has passed muster before, but that was before the FCC's recent profanity crackdown.

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