Watching What We?re Watching

Posted: Nov 12, 2004 12:00 AM

What you see often depends on where you are -- as you move around an object, your view of it changes. In much the same way, as you move around the world and around the country, the televised view changes, as well.

For example, relatives in Britain said the BBC portrayed our recent election by showing the following images: ?A group of West Virginians disguised in huge, cheesy, duck-imitating contraptions, duck calling and then blasting the ducks out of the sky. A Southern preacher screaming at the congregation that, ?You?d better vote for Jesus Christ.??


We in this country know it was John Kerry who promised the people of Ohio a goose in every pot, and then went out to shoot those geese himself. And we recall it was Kerry -- like Al Gore in 2000 -- who spent time in pulpits, especially in black churches, seeking votes. But, in large part because of ?the Beeb,? British families see Bush voters as gun-toting religious extremists. No wonder they so often misunderstand us.  Of course, even within our own country, what we see on television often depends on where we live. Consider the flap over Saving Private Ryan.

For the third straight year, the ABC television network aired Steven Spielberg?s classic film on Veteran?s Day, as a ?thank you? to all those who have served -- or are now serving -- our country during wartime. The film portrays the D-Day landing, and is marked by its realistic violence and language.

Historian Stephen Ambrose served as a consultant on the film. ?I?ve been writing about war all my life. And I can?t do what the opening 25 minutes of this movie do to you,? Ambrose said in a 1998 interview with PBS.

Ambrose thought it was especially important that viewers understand the true nature of war. ?Combat is just the worst experience a human being can ever have,? Ambrose told the Encyclopedia Britannica. ?Saving Private Ryan shows you that. And I think that?s good.?

Of course, men facing this sort of violence have been known to use, shall we say, impolite language. So the movie does, as well. And that?s where the problem arises.

When Spielberg sold the film to ABC, he insisted that it always air unedited. But this year, the FCC has been cracking down on what it calls indecency. So this year, whether you saw Private Ryan or not depended on where you lived. Viewers in 65 markets were denied the chance.

Scripps Howard owns ABC affiliates in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Detroit, Phoenix and Tampa. It pulled the movie from them and made clear it was doing so because of fears it might be fined. ?Recent federal regulatory decisions on profanity appear to make it clear the Federal Communications Commission prohibits the broadcast of the type of profanity used in the movie. Clear, unequivocal warnings to viewers . . . do not appear to mitigate a TV station?s obligation to prohibit the broadcast of profane language prior to 10 p.m.,? the company explained.

The media landscape was different just two years ago. Back then, the FCC denied a complaint about the movie, noting the film attempted to be historically accurate in its violence and its language.

But since then, the FCC has slapped a record-setting fine on CBS for showing Janet Jackson?s nipple during the Super Bowl. The regulatory agency also criticized NBC for allowing rock singer Bono to use the F-word during an awards ceremony in 2003. That reversed an earlier decision in the Bono case. So, in light of the FCC?s recent activism, it?s logical that many station managers decided they?d rather be safe than sorry.

?This is not about whether the movie is worth airing in prime time. It is extremely worthwhile programming,? said Greg Stone, the general manager of WSB in Atlanta. But that station didn?t show Private Ryan, because it decided the movie wasn?t worth risking its broadcast license over.

Instead of government regulation, we ought to let the free market operate. ABC clearly thought that the movie would bring in good ratings -- certainly better than ?Return to Mayberry,? the movie that stations in Des Moines, Sioux City, Iowa, and Lincoln, Neb., replaced it with.

As for those who would have been offended by the violence or language, they could always have switched to another station or turned the TV off.

Because of the fear of an overzealous federal regulatory agency, millions of Americans were recently denied a chance to see a powerful and important film. We ought to rein in the regulators and let the free market rule -- before our network television descends to the level of the government-run BBC.