ABC affiliates saying no to 'Private Ryan'

ABC became the latest casualty in the indecency war last night when as many as one-fourth of the network's 225 affiliated stations refused to air the critically acclaimed World War II film Saving Private Ryan.

The stations that pre-empted the Veterans Day showing of Steven Spielberg's 1998 Academy Award-winning film included Baltimore's WMAR-TV (Channel 2) and eight stations owned or operated by the Hunt Valley-based Sinclair Broadcast Group. Like their counterparts nationwide, both Sinclair and WMAR management yesterday cited Federal Communications Commission rulings in the wake of Janet Jackson's breast-baring performance during halftime at the Super Bowl in February as the reason for their actions.


"Saving Private Ryan is a powerful tribute to World War II and is perfectly appropriate for Veterans Day," said Drew Barry, vice president and general manager of WMAR. "But given the decisions from the FCC this year on indecency and profanity, we just can't risk airing the film in this new regulatory environment. ...The FCC is really cracking down."

What started early in the week as a mutiny by a handful of Midwestern stations snowballed until it included yesterday such major broadcast groups as Hearst-Argyle, Belo Corp., Citadel Communications, Cox Television, Scripps Howard, McGraw-Hill and Young Broadcasting. Hearst-Argyle alone has 13 ABC affiliates including WCVB-TV (Channel 5) in Boston, the nation's fifth largest television market. Other markets in which Saving Private Ryan was not seen last night included Dallas and Atlanta.


Added reaction

Already the decision is having a ripple effect. Broadcasters reported a smattering of complaints from callers who identified themselves as veterans. And the American Civil Liberties Union criticized the FCC: "The ambiguity by the FCC on what exactly is indecent means an increasingly diminished marketplace of ideas," Marvin Johnson, ACLU legislative counsel said in a statement.

Saving Private Ryan already has aired on ABC - on Veterans Day in 2001 and 2002. While WMAR's Barry said that at that time, the station received "a few complaints" about language - the movie uses an expletive beginning with the letter "F" 48 times - there was no action taken against WMAR or any other station by the FCC.

"But that was before Janet Jackson," said Tom Campo, a spokesperson for Hearst-Argyle. "The unsettled state of the law as put down by the FCC has left our broadcast stations in an untenable situation."

New rules

Under new legislation, the FCC has the power to fine a station $27,500 for each act or utterance that is deemed indecent or profane. In September, the FCC levied a $550,000 fine against CBS-owned stations for Jackson's Super Bowl performance. That fine is being appealed.

In March, the FCC also ruled that a statement made by Bono, the lead singer of the rock group U2, that was broadcast live on NBC was also indecent and profane. ("This is really, really, [expletive] brilliant," Bono said after being named a winner at the 2003 Golden Globes Award show.)

"In our case, that could be 13 stations times 48," Campo said. "You do the math."


While phone calls to Sinclair were not returned, the broadcaster issued a statement citing as a catalyst for its action the language in Saving Private Ryan and "ambiguities" in the FCC indeceny rules. "The movie contains numerous unedited uses of the F-word. It is unclear whether this broadcast violates portions of the FCC's rules prohibiting the broadcast of indecent material between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., or if the content and artistic qualities of Saving Private Ryan would excuse the repeated uses," the Sinclair statement said.

Executives at several broadcast groups said they tried to negotiate with ABC to be allowed to air the film starting at 10 p.m. - a time period outside the "safe harbor" of FCC regulation. But ABC declined. The network is prohibited from editing the film by the contract it has with DreamWorks, the production company co-founded by Spielberg. DreamWorks last night declined to comment.

ABC also declined comment.

According to executives of the broadcast groups contacted by The Sun, ABC offered to pay any fine imposed on its stations by the FCC for airing Saving Private Ryan. But ABC can not indemnify the stations against losing their licenses.

Last night's pre-emptions left many broadcasters scrambling to fill their prime-time schedule. WMAR planned to air holiday specials and expanded newscasts, Barry said.

When a network suffers pre-emptions at the rate ABC did last night, it loses its ability to sell itself to advertisers as a national broadcaster. Advertisers who had purchased commercial time based on the promise that their ads would be broadcast in all 225 cities that ABC reaches will have to be re-imbursed by the network. (Such restitution, however, often takes the form of "make good" commercial minutes in another broadcast rather than actual refunds.)


Still, there is nothing more threatening to a network than a station mutiny of the magnitude that ABC saw last night.