Buyers, Sellers Chilled By War-Film Preemption

Dozens of ABC stations refused to air the violent, expletive-laden Academy Award-winning film Saving Private Ryan last week—even though the World War II epic has aired twice before—in a Veterans Day incident that left sellers worried and buyers fearful about shifting federal indecency standards.

ABC viewers in Boston, Detroit, Tampa, Fla., Dallas, Milwaukee, Des Moines, Iowa, and other markets saw Return to Mayberry and other hastily scheduled programming on Nov. 11 after station execs decided it was too risky to show a movie with horrific violence and dozens of uses of the f-word. For more than 40 of ABC’s 225 stations last week, preemption seemed the wiser course.

The Federal Communications Commission refused to say whether Ryan is indecent in its new regulatory climate. “We do not tell people whether they can or cannot air something—that would be censorship,” said one FCC official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They can look at case law and our regulations.”

Exactly, said Randy Sharp, director-special projects for the American Family Association, which challenged Ryan in 2001 but was rebuffed by the FCC. “The FCC has already ruled the f-word is indecent. … If one time is enough, surely 20-times-plus is enough,” Sharp said.

That’s just what some affiliates feared. Many asked ABC for permission to air Ryan after 10 p.m., when children are not likely viewers. But affiliates said the network insisted on an 8 p.m. airtime, when decency regulations are in full force.

“With the current FCC, we just don’t know [how an indecency challenge might be judged],” said Roger Moody, vp/general manager at KLKN, Citadel Communications’ ABC station in Lincoln, Neb. Others saw less risk. “We are confident [the FCC will] conclude in these circumstances that context does matter,” said Jerald Fritz, svp at Allbritton Communications, which aired Ryan on its eight ABC affiliates.

Buyers looked on in horror. “It’s mind-blowing and bewildering,” said Stan Gerber, evp at independent JL Media.

The FCC earlier this year proposed a $550,000 fine against Viacom for CBS’ breast-baring Super Bowl broadcast and a $1.18 million fine spread across 169 Fox affils for a show featuring pixilated strippers—a penalty invoked partly because the stations had the chance to preview the show.

Viacom pushed back as it formally challenged the proposed Super Bowl fine. “The absence of clear guidelines impermissibly chills speech,” the company said in a filing.

FCC Chairman Michael Powell, asked what happens next, had a succinct reply: “We beat them in court.”