Saving Saving Private Ryan

Michael Powell's FCC has clamped down on graphic content -- and shut out worthwhile programming like the war movie along with the smut

By Thane Peterson

To: Michael Powell, Chairman,

Federal Communications Commission

Subject: Saving Private Ryan

Sir: When more than 20 ABC affiliates are afraid to show in prime time on Veterans Day one of the greatest war movies ever made, we've got a problem. ABC's broadcast of Saving Private Ryan on Nov. 11 was introduced by Senator John McCain, a conservative Republican war hero, yet stations in major markets such as Atlanta, Boston, and Orlando were so fearful the movie's language could subject them to Federal Communications Commission sanctions that they decided not to air it.

Saving Private Ryan is a movie about soldiers in combat, for gosh sakes, and the dialogue should contain cursing. McCain himself issued a statement saying the movie is "nowhere near indecent." Even L. Brent Bozell, president of the conservative Parents Television Council, which is usually hypercritical of the networks, defended ABC, arguing that the movie's violence and language are appropriate to the subject.


  Keeping this kind of movie out of prime time isn't what most Americans have in mind when we talk about cleaning up the airwaves. With all due respect, sir, adult Americans don't need a federal nanny to tell us what to watch on network TV.

Yet I'm afraid that the FCC may just be warming up. After months of rumors that you would be leaving the FCC, you recently announced that you plan to stay on, probably until the end of your term in 2007. With conservative Republicans in firm control of the House and Senate (to say nothing of the Presidency) and both parties in a dither about the electorate's supposed preoccupation with "moral values," I suspect there's going to be a strong push to clamp down on sex and violence on TV.

My worry is that the legitimate concerns about violent, smutty, and vapid fare on TV will be used to launch a jihad against worthy programming -- HBO's original shows, for instance, or other movies that contain language or scenes that might be considered offensive. You're a conservative Republican yourself, and you're going to be under heavy pressure. But I'm hoping you'll fight the good fight to help ensure that Congress and the FCC to follow certain major principles I think most Americans can agree on:

1. Please remember that context matters. The FCC has always limited dirty language on the public airwaves, but until March the context in which a word was uttered made all the difference. The old guidelines, published in 2001 and developed under a Clinton-era FCC panel, allowed the f-word if it was used as a single expletive uttered spontaneously or by someone in shock or under duress, or if cursing was necessary to maintain the realism of a work of artist merit (like, say, Saving Private Ryan).

For example, the guidelines explicitly said the full frontal nudity in Schindler's List was acceptable because of its "manner of presentation" and because it was in historical context." (The full report can be seen at the FCC's Web site. Warning: It contains explicit language that people might find offensive.)

The FCC screwed up when it threw out the old rules in March. I know you were feeling the heat over Janet Jackson having bared her breast during the Super Bowl broadcast. But deciding to ban all use of the f-word in prime time was an overreaction. And the result was highly unfortunate. Viewers in the markets where Saving Private Ryan wasn't shown lost out.

All those ABC affiliates had shown the movie the previous two Veterans Days without major controversy. This time around, WSB-TV, ABC's Atlanta affiliate, issued a statement praising the movie as "extremely worthwhile programming" but said it had decided not to air it "because of ambiguity over the FCC's view of graphic language." Even though ABC offered to pay any fines, the stations feared airing the movie would give gadflies ammunition to challenge their FCC licenses at renewal time.

2: The main goal should be to promote freedom of choice. One reason Bozell defended ABC is that the network did an exemplary job of warning viewers about the violence and rough language in Saving Private Ryan, broadcasting alerts both before and during the film. Anyone who might have been offended had ample opportunity to switch channels. As long as other broadcasters do the same during controversial broadcasts, the FCC has no business limiting what they show during prime time.

3. Similarly, the FCC should resist any attempts to extend its purview to monitor cable and satellite TV and radio (where the oft-censured Howard Stern will soon be broadcasting). Some conservatives in Congress, offended by the extremely graphic content on pay TV services such as HBO, have talked about using the FCC to clamp down on them, but you should resist.

The First Amendment clearly states that "Congress shall make no law" abridging freedom of speech, and we only accept some FCC regulation of broadcast TV and radio because it's beamed into every home. With pay services, consumers have a clear choice to subscribe or not to subscribe. To your credit, Chairman Powell, you have raised First Amendment objections to the idea and publicly praised HBO (I like The Sopranos, too).

So far, however, you haven't said what the FCC plans to do about the affiliates that aired Saving Private Ryan on Nov. 11. My advice: Don't fine them. Issue a statement that content and artistic merit do still matter. Revise the rules a bit, if you must, but keep in mind the principles outlined above. To do otherwise would do the nation a disservice.


Thane Peterson

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his State of the Arts column, only on BusinessWeek Online

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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