‘Private Ryan’ not indecent, FCC rules

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The Federal Communications Commission acknowledged yesterday that “Saving Private Ryan” features heavy profanity, but said the ABC affiliates that aired the film on Veterans Day did not violate the government’s decency standards.

The language used in “Saving Private Ryan” is not indecent, given the context in which it was presented, the FCC ruled. The 1998 film tells the story of a violent rescue mission during World War II.

“The horror of war and the enormous personal sacrifice it draws on cannot be painted in airy pastels. The true colors are muddy brown and fire red, and any accurate depiction of this significant, historical tale could not be told properly without bringing that sense to the screen,” said FCC Chairman Michael K. Powell, a Republican who is scheduled to depart the agency this month.

The ruling by the five-member FCC was unanimous. The commissioners reached their decision Feb. 3 and released it yesterday. A spokeswoman said she did not know why the announcement was delayed.

Sixty-six of ABC’s estimated 225 affiliates declined to air “Saving Private Ryan,” citing concerns about the profanity and violence depicted in the film.

Station managers said they were nervous because ABC scheduled the airing in the wake of last year’s Super Bowl halftime-show brouhaha, when Justin Timberlake briefly exposed part of Janet Jackson’s right breast, triggering a government crackdown on indecency on the airwaves.

The FCC spokeswoman said the number of complaints the agency received about the November 2004 airing of the film was unavailable, but an official with the American Family Association — a conservative watchdog group that campaigned against the film’s broadcast — said its members sent 23,339 complaints.

“Our reaction is one of extreme disappointment. … I think it confuses a lot of people,” said Randy Sharp, the association’s director of special projects. He cited the FCC’s so-called “Bono” decision, which suggested context is not necessarily a consideration when determining whether profanity violates decency standards.

In October 2003, the FCC ruled that Bono’s use of an expletive during NBC’s January 2003 broadcast of the Golden Globes was not indecent because the rock star used the word as an adjective, not a verb.

Six weeks after Miss Jackson’s Super Bowl performance, the FCC reversed the decision, ruling Bono’s use of the word was indecent. However, the agency declined to fine NBC, saying the network had not been put on notice that airing profanity violated the rules.

According to the government’s regulations, over-the-air television and radio stations cannot broadcast materials involving sexual and excretory functions between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when children might tune in.

“The FCC is right. Context matters,” said Howard M. Liberman, a communications lawyer in Washington who formerly worked as an FCC staff attorney.

Many of the ABC affiliates that declined to air “Saving Private Ryan” said they recognized the artistic value of the film, which opened to critical acclaim and won five Academy Awards.

“Based on this ruling today, we would be favorably disposed to airing it if the network scheduled it again,” said Raymond Cole, president of Citadel Communications, which owns three of the ABC affiliates that pre-empted the film last year.

The FCC also announced yesterday that, in a Feb. 14 ruling, denied indecency complaints against episodes of the comedy series “Arrested Development” and “Will & Grace.”

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