So Now You Tell Us!

by on March 1, 2005

Is Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” too hot for broadcast television? That’s the question that ABC affiliates were asking themselves–and the FCC–back in November of last year as they readied to show the film on Veteran’s Day. The FCC was on an indecency-fine rampage–rhetorically, at least–and no broadcaster was interested in paying out fines or putting its broadcast license at risk.

You may remember the FCC’s response then to broadcasters’ inquiries. The agency said that it was barred from making a decision before the broadcast “because that would be censorship.” But said a spokesman, “If we get a complaint, we’ll act on it.”

No surprise, a number of ABC affiliates dropped the film despite having shown it, to great appreciation, on prior Veteran’s Days.

Well, those affiliates that did show “Private Ryan” last year can now breathe easier. Just yesterday, over three months after Veteran’s Day, the FCC has rendered its ruling:  “In light of the overall context in which this material is presented, the commission determined that it was not indecent or profane.”

So how is this any different, in terms of censorship, than if the FCC had said the same thing three or four months ago? Beats me. Of course, if the FCC had made its decision months ago, those affiliates that opted for tamer programming on Veteran’s Day could have shown “Private Ryan.”

The FCC seems to think that if it doesn’t rule beforehand what’s acceptable and what isn’t that it’s not really censoring. But this premise is a bit flimsy. Facing vague indecency standards and the real threat of fines or worse, broadcasters will do the censorship themselves and, as with “Private Ryan,” may misjudge the FCC and withold perfectly decent programming. This isn’t voluntary compliance; it’s a chilling effect.

So should the FCC just go ahead and censor? It’s an unattractive choice, but it might be more honest than status quo’s de facto censorship. Would the FCC be flooded with inquiries from the networks, which would want every show to be FCC-approved? Surely, but that comes with the territory of vague content standards. And anyway, would it really be so different regular floods of complains from special-interest groups, on both sides of the cultural divide, that require investigation and, sometimes, post-facto punishment?

All this should be food for thought for those who wish to make the FCC’s response to programming judged “indecent” even harsher. With greater fines, stations will become even more cautious, and while that may cut down on poor-taste programming, worthwhile shows, like “Private Ryan,” will be affected, too.

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