So Now You Tell Us!

by on March 1, 2005 · 4 comments

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.

  • The Serpent

    What would happen if someone were to air Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? I’m assuming such a film would have to be acted in the nude until just before the end. In no way could the nudity be considered gratuitous. Yet I imagine there would be an whole lot of complaints.

    Makes me want to try to make the project, just to see how many brains I can fry with from contradictions.

  • The Serpent

    What would happen if someone were to air Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? I’m assuming such a film would have to be acted in the nude until just before the end. In no way could the nudity be considered gratuitous. Yet I imagine there would be an whole lot of complaints.

    Makes me want to try to make the project, just to see how many brains I can fry with from contradictions.

  • Mike Liveright

    It seems to me that there are three actions that should be taken to “reasonably” satisfy the majority of the population.

    . 1) The Cable/Satellite companies should allow people to purchase individual channels. — I have just heard that there is a feeling that some people don’t want to pay for some channels in a group and feel that this requires them to either forgo any channel or all of them. So if the Cable companies want to reduce the pressure to control their content, they may want to implement single channel pricing.

    . 2) Each program/commercial… must be rated, with V-Chip ratings so that a user can filter out the programs that are above their ratings or unrated, (assumed to be of “highest” rating X)

    . 3) The FCC MUST!!! publish clear standards for establishing these V-Chip suitable ratings far in advance enough so that if a program rates itself according to the published standards it is protected against prosecution.

    This would, I think, allow any user to determine what control he wishes to apply to his viewing without controlling the viewing of others and without chilling any content provider. With the V-Chip we do have the technology for user control of the content that they receive and so no longer should there be any reason for one user to control the content that is available to others.

  • Mike Liveright

    It seems to me that there are three actions that should be taken to “reasonably” satisfy the majority of the population.

    . 1) The Cable/Satellite companies should allow people to purchase individual channels. — I have just heard that there is a feeling that some people don’t want to pay for some channels in a group and feel that this requires them to either forgo any channel or all of them. So if the Cable companies want to reduce the pressure to control their content, they may want to implement single channel pricing.

    . 2) Each program/commercial… must be rated, with V-Chip ratings so that a user can filter out the programs that are above their ratings or unrated, (assumed to be of “highest” rating X)

    . 3) The FCC MUST!!! publish clear standards for establishing these V-Chip suitable ratings far in advance enough so that if a program rates itself according to the published standards it is protected against prosecution.

    This would, I think, allow any user to determine what control he wishes to apply to his viewing without controlling the viewing of others and without chilling any content provider. With the V-Chip we do have the technology for user control of the content that they receive and so no longer should there be any reason for one user to control the content that is available to others.

Previous post:

Next post: