Saving Barney Fife

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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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