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Private Ryan’s Privates

November 12th, 2004

In what I consider to be an amusing development in the ongoing American Cultural War, a large number of ABC TV affiliates cancelled previously scheduled Veterans’ Day screenings of Saving Private Ryan due to concerns that they might run afoul of the newly fine-happy Federal Communications Commission. While the World War II film features intense, realistic scenes of combat, more relevant to this discussion is the fact that it includes a variety of federally-proscribed naughty words.

Typically, such language is trimmed for commercial broadcast TV, but such is the power of Ryan director Steven Spielberg that the film was to have aired uncut, as it has on two previous network screenings. However, that was before Janet Jackson shocked America by displaying slightly more of her mammary gland than we traditionally demand of our celebrities. Since then, the FCC has been on the hunt, levying massive fines against broadcasters who have dared to offend a microscopic portion of their audience: the portion that sits by the set with a tape recorder, pen and paper, waiting to be offended. Orchestrated campaigns by watchdog groups such as the American Family Association and the Parents Television Council have flooded the FCC with complaints.

Now, it would be easy to accuse the ABC stations of overreacting. I think it’s highly unlikely that even this more militant FCC would dare to fine stations over such a fine slice of soldier-saluting Americana as Saving Private Ryan. It’s one thing to target a woman who is African-American–and even more damning, a non-Republican celebrity–but another thing entirely to risk pissing off the veterans. (That said, it’s worth pointing out that while the spokesperson of the PTC said “context is everything” when defending his decision not to go after the stations that aired the movie this year, the AFA is indeed intending to file thousands of indecency complaints.)

The problem for those of us in the broadcasting business–and the reason that a lot of folks couldn’t watch Ryan last night–is that no one is absolutely sure where the line is being drawn. While FCC chair Michael Powell has mentioned the consideration of context in recent interviews, he’s also made it clear that he intends to enforce existing regulations. These mixed messages have left broadcasters understandably skittish.

Public TV stations, which have traditionally erred on the side of allowing more so-called adult content, have similarly been forced to sanitize their airwaves. After all, most public broadcasters teeter on a fiscal knife edge, and I doubt that any one of them could afford going ten rounds with Powell’s FCC. Shows we could have aired without incident last year (e.g The Gin Game) would never see the light of the cathode-ray tube in an uncut form today.

What I find so amusing about this latest salvo in the Cultural War is that for once it’s not about someone’s titty, or about Howard Stern being a bad boy. We can all agree that those things are unfit for human consumption, despite their obvious popularity with people who do not belong to watchdog groups. Now it’s affecting our soldiers, or at least their idealized, filmic counterparts. Shoe’s on the other foot now, kids. Can you save Private Ryan without acknowledging that sometimes it’s appropriate, or even necessary, to hear a naughty word on TV?

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