Pulling Private Ryan
Pacifism, censoriousness or post-Janet Jackson caution - what made 20 US TV stations withdraw the Veterans Day screening of Spielberg's patriotic war flick?
On Veterans Day, at least 20 affiliate TV stations from the American network ABC decided against airing Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning war flick, Saving Private Ryan. Considering events in Iraq, I wondered whether this was a sign that America couldn’t stomach any more violence and bloodshed. But a sudden outburst of pacifism from the nation that re-elected George W Bush didn’t seem quite right.
I was in America for the Superbowl in February 2004 when Janet Jackson flashed her nipple on national TV. The consequences of her actions made me gasp: howls of outrage from policymakers and family groups on Capitol Hill, £299,000 worth of fines, an independent government investigation and widespread industry backlash against sexually explicit content. Former Nixon speechwriter William Safire even described the incident as ‘the socio-political event of the past year’ (1).
So with 22 per cent of Americans citing ‘moral values’ as key to their voting decision in the recent election, I thought that the decision not to screen Saving Private Ryan could only be a sign of moral censoriousness in an increasingly conservative climate. Yet it would appear even that even this explanation is too simplistic.
The motives behind the decision not to show the war film still remain unclear. On one hand it has been seen as caution exercised in the wake of incidents such as Jackson’s nipple display and, eight months later, Bono’s use of the f-word at a televised awards ceremony, which have prompted regulators to impose harsh penalties on each profanity used on primetime television ‘regardless of context’.
An opposing argument sees this move as retaliation by American TV stations against aggressive and often unclear broadcasting legislation by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). By refusing to honour the Veterans Day screening of Saving Private Ryan (which has been shown twice before on ABC without any significant issues) broadcasters are sending the message that law enforcement has become ridiculous. Programmers are no longer clear about what is acceptable and are not prepared to risk incurring fines on content with profanities.
A third interpretation suggests that the FCC is being played by conservative watchdog groups eager to impose their sterile standards on the American public at large. This occurs through the mechanics of the regulating system, by which the FCC ‘does not monitor television broadcasts, but responds to viewers’ complaints’ (2).
As a result, Christian watchdog groups such as the American Family Association (AFA) are lobbying the FCC about programming that they deem unsuitable – claiming that they take their steps in the name of morality and the need to ‘protect children’. The AFA’s website, for example, has a pre-written email that will automatically file a complaint directly to the regulator about the contents of Saving Private Ryan. With enough complaints, especially in regards to offensiveness, the FCC is automatically instigated into action.
A spokesperson for the American Family Association said: ‘We realise it is important for families, especially our children, to recognise sacrifices made by our loved ones during wartime. However, airing excessively profane language during prime-time television hours is not necessary to convey that sacrifice.’
This incident could be the tip of the iceberg. The AFA is also calling for a boycott of Disney because of its ‘promotion of the homosexual agenda’ – pointing to Disney’s support for some films and TV programmes that feature homosexuality. Meanwhile, Kinsey, the new film charting the life and work of the sex researcher Albert Kinsey, has been heavily condemned by other conservative watchdog groups such as Concerned Women for America, which says that ‘Kinsey’s proper place is with Nazi Dr Josef Mengele or your average Hollywood horror flick mad scientist’ (4).
Clive Webb, a reader in American studies at Sussex University, tells me that: ‘Though groups such as American Family Association may not be that significant numerically their influence should not be underestimated. They are extremely well bankrolled, brilliant lobbyists and are playing to a media that is already largely controlled by the right.’
Yet they don’t have so much sway over the American public at large. ‘Most Americans are not strangers to swearing, sexual intercourse, or intoxicating substances’, Chuck Karczag, PR director for a grassroots organisation in South Carolina told me. ‘It’s a dysfunctional regulatory structure that empowers the stodgiest prudes to leverage their tiny numbers and intensely held beliefs into effective threats of censorship.’
But just how far can they go? A recent survey showed that just 17 per cent of the American public were ‘very concerned’ about the Janet Jackson Superbowl fiasco (5). Meanwhile, however sterile public television becomes, it continues to lose ground to cable, which is now available in 67 per cent of American homes. With all programming on cable unanswerable to the FCC, content continues to become ever more liberal and explicit, with shows such as Nip & Tuck, Sex and the City and Will and Grace dominating viewing figures (6).
All this points to an increasing disjuncture between conservative myth and cultural reality. Yale University psychology professor Marianne LaFrance argues that: ‘Repression is an interesting thing in American culture because at the same time as you see a proliferation of explicit sexuality in every media, the puritanical myths of the culture continue apace.’ (7)
Given all this, the decision by a number of Channel ABC affiliates to pull Saving Private Ryan may be hailed as a small victory among conservative watchdogs. But it is unlikely to amount to any more than a wakeup call to the loopholes in the public regulatory system.
Despite the fact that one third of America didn’t have the opportunity to see Saving Private Ryan, it was still watched by a record 7.7million people in the country on Veterans Day, with almost 7million of that figure aged 18 or older. It appears that parents are able to make decisions for themselves about the suitability of TV programming, without heavy-handed regulation or bowing to the interests of America’s self-appointed moral guardians.
Kunal Dutta is an intern at spiked. He has lived in America and worked in the advertising industry.
(1) ‘On ‘moral values’, it’s blue in a landslide’ Frank Rich, New York Times, 14 November 2004
(2) Retreat on Pvt Ryan silly, Dusty Saunders, Rocky Mountain News, 15 November 2004
(3) ‘Christian groups to complain to FCC about film’, David Zurawik, Baltimore Sun, 13 November 2004
(4) Groups claim new film falsely depicts famous sex researcher, American Family Association, 11 November 2004
(5) An unhealthy obsession, John Willis, Guardian, 11 October 2004
(6) Retreat on Pvt Ryan silly, Dusty Saunders, Rocky Mountain News, 15 November 2004
(7) Sex sells, and sells and sells, Deborah Hornblow, The Hartford Courant, 14 November 2004
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