Published on Thursday, November 11, 2004 by the Post-Gazette / Pittsburgh, PA
Waiving Private Ryan in the New Moral Climate
by Tony Norman
Last night brought us all a bracing dose of the new morality. It's getting to the point where even jingoism and flag waving have to pass a sniff test on Veterans Day.
In a political climate awash in rhetoric about moral values, it was only a matter of time before the network broadcast of "Saving Private Ryan" would be deemed too risky for affiliates spooked by the threat that the Federal Communications Commission might fine their network if they showed the profanity-laced World War II movie.
When Janet Jackson had her infamous "wardrobe malfunction" at the Super Bowl, who would've thought that an exposed mammary gland had the capacity to offend more Americans than a military incursion into Iraq?
Last week, while watching the red spread across the electoral map like a geyser of blood erupting from a bullet wound, even the most despairing of us didn't think we'd be entering the regulatory dark ages of a second Bush term this quickly. The headlong gallop into aesthetic poverty and cowardice is amazing.
Last night, when millions of viewers in roughly 20 television markets and eight states tuned to their ABC affiliates for "Saving Private Ryan," most were surprised to see Don Knotts blinking back at them. When you're flipping around the dial for a movie about Normandy, Barney Fife isn't the first thing that comes to mind.
And, ga-aaaaalllleee, folks. Unless Gomer Pyle was taking out Nazi garrisons between servings of Aunt Bee's pies, there's no rational explanation for a network replacing "Saving Private Ryan" with "Return to Mayberry" on Veterans Day, for crying out loud!
Fortunately for those of us in the Pittsburgh area, we were spared Opie Taylor's mid-life crisis. Instead of "Return to Mayberry," WTAE Channel 4 aired "Far and Away," a movie directed by Ron Howard, Opie's real-life alter ego.
In some ways, it would've been more fitting for WTAE to have aired the militantly inoffensive "Return to Mayberry" instead of a terrible Tom Cruise movie. At least it matches the kind of America envisioned by FCC Chairman Michael Powell.
WTAE, like most ABC affiliates, televised "Saving Private Ryan" unedited on Veterans Day in 2001 and 2002 without incident. But that was before Janet's breast shocked the consciences of the disingenuous.
CBS, the network that televised Jackson's bare breast, paid a record fine for indecency. Suddenly, network affiliates can't broadcast anything without weighing the risk of a fine from the FCC as it overcompensates for formerly lax oversight of the airwaves.
Because director Steven Spielberg wouldn't allow the profanity in his film to be edited out, it is likely to offend hypersensitive viewers most likely to lodge a complaint with censorious bureaucrats. Meanwhile, the FCC refused to issue a waiver in advance of the broadcast, insisting that it was up to ABC to follow the dictates of its own conscience.
To its credit, ABC was willing to risk it, but many of its affiliates weren't willing to follow, despite the network's promise to pay all FCC fines. The affiliates were afraid that fines would be used as a pretext to challenge their broadcast licenses when they come up for renewal in some communities.
Several years ago, conservative interest groups lobbied hard against ABC showing "Saving Private Ryan" on network television. Now affiliates are terrified that those operatives are still lying in wait for the broadcast now that the drift of national politics is on their side. These groups are already going after ABC's "Desperate Housewives," television's top-rated drama.
At the rate things are going, maybe ABC should think about renaming the show "Desperate in Mayberry" before the next shareholders' meeting.
© 2004 PG Publishing Co.