After a week of advertising for a Veterans Day showing of the Steven Spielberg film “Saving Private Ryan,” in fear of Federal Communications Commission sanctions, about one-third of ABC’s regional affiliates opted to show other programs instead. Despite two previous prime time airings of the movie in 2001 and 2002, affiliates cited the FCC’s intensified alertness to indecent language on the airwaves as their main reason for shelving the film. Despite the parent network’s pledge to cover any subsequent FCC fines, the affiliates — including all six Sinclair Broadcasting Corporations — refused to air the film. Given the potential importance of the film’s harsh realism to a nation of viewers growing slowly desensitized to the still-raging war in Iraq, it is unfortunate that communication companies in eight different states let the would-be repercussions of airing the word “fuck” prevent the exposure of such a valuable subject matter.
The public uncovering of Janet Jackson’s breast at the Super Bowl added to already growing concerns triggered by U2 singer Bono’s use of an expletive at the 2003 Golden Globe Awards that content on prime time televisions is not adequately censored. One ABC affiliate, WSB-TV in Atlanta, asked for the film to be aired after 10 p.m. along with the option to edit scenes, but Spielberg’s 2001 stipulation with ABC does not allow for editing of any kind. Citadel Communications phoned the FCC to ask for a waiver to show the film, but was denied. These stations’ efforts were an attempt to circumvent a recent FCC ruling that language “so grossly offensive to members of public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance” cannot be aired between 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. on network television.
The latest precedent has come under heavy criticism from networks concerned that it represents an overly stringent approach to content regulation. WSB-TV president Greg Stone said the FCC’s decision “reversed years of prior policy that the context of language matters.” If there is one acceptable context for the word “fuck,” it is in a combat situation like those shown in “Private Ryan,” where conventional standards of decency and civility are in short supply. Spielberg himself received much direction from World War II veterans about the supposedly superfluous use of expletives in war. Veterans, who have attested to the accuracy and realism of the film’s historical depiction, should not have been dishonored on Veteran’s Day by network affiliates afraid of a few fines.
More disturbing, however, is the fact that network subsidiaries were reluctant to air the film in the first place. A string of over-abrasive FCC sanctions have created a chilling effect in the mainstream media — a tacit understanding amongst networks to shy away from possibly contentious content. While the FCC won’t hesitate to threaten sanctions against an enlightening and poignant film about the sobering realities of combat on Veteran’s Day, it has no problem letting viewers watch sexually explicit shows like “Desperate Housewives” or “Are You Hot?” For the staggering amount of sleazy substance that flows from the airwaves of network television, it is a shame that on their one day of remembrance, veterans across the country were disgraced by overly-cautious communications companies and their fear of unreasonable FCC regulations.