Must-Not-See TV

At first I thought all the uproar last week wasn’t because ABC aired “Saving Private Ryan,” but because it aired “Shaving Ryan’s Privates.” Then I realized I didn’t really think that, and I just wanted to make that joke. Then I was deeply ashamed.

Ever since Janet Jackson showed her off-putting, talentless breast to the nation during the Super Bowl and got CBS fined hundreds of thousands of dollars by the Federal Communications Commission, all the broadcasters have been skittish. Everyone’s afraid of getting in trouble with the FCC. Shots of naked butts are down 80 percent on “NYPD Blue,” PBS made Big Bird put some pants on, and Ted Koppel is no longer permitted to end “Nightline” by saying, “Good night, m*****-f*****s!” Even BBC-America had to cover up the faces of the ugly, ugly British people it shows. It’s crazy, I tells you! Crazy!

So in this atmosphere of paranoia, it is no surprise that some ABC affiliates were afraid to go along with the network’s planned broadcast of “Saving Private Ryan” on Veterans Day. The film contains a good many cuss words, not to mention its legendary opening sequence in which dozens of soldiers are killed in a variety of ways that are funny when Freddy Krueger does it but not when the Germans do it (which is sort of a double standard, but what can you do?).

ABC aired the film, also unedited, in 2001 and 2002 and got no trouble from the FCC. But things have changed now. Some things that used to be OK are no longer OK, thanks to Ms. Jackson’s mammilla, and the network affiliates were a-feared. The FCC, helpful as always, refused to say beforehand whether or not showing the film would be punishable, apparently unable to know what it thinks until outraged members of the community tell it what it thinks.

So about one-third of ABC affiliates chickened out and refused to show the film. When I read this, I thought, “That’s silly. They’re being paranoid for nothing! Who’s going to complain about showing ‘Saving Private Ryan’ on Veterans Day? And even if people did complain, there’s no way the FCC would take them seriously!”

Well, as usual, I had no idea what I was talking about. The very next morning, the uber-ultra-mega-conservative American Family Association complained to the FCC about the previous night’s “indecent” broadcast and called for fines to be levied against the offending stations. The FCC dutifully listened, and seems to be giving the complaints more credence than usual, all because of this new atmosphere of over-cautiousness.

Now, it’s not that I, as some people do, consider “Saving Private Ryan” to be totally the most bestest and awesomest movie ever. I recall my thoughts upon first watching it to be about like this:

“Man, war sure is awful…. OK, I get it, war is terrible…. OK! I believe you! KNOCK IT OFF!!… Oh, for heaven’s sake, there’s NO CALL FOR DECAPITATIONS! I GET IT! I’M SORRY! I’LL NEVER START ANOTHER WAR AS LONG AS I LIVE!!… FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS GOOD AND HOLY, MAKE IT STOP!!”

(Also, I was on a date, and we were holding hands, so it was kind of weird.)

Anyway, it’s the sort of movie I “respect” more than I “enjoy,” and I am in no hurry to watch it again. Which is why, when it aired on Veterans Day, I didn’t watch it. I didn’t mind that ABC was showing it; I just chose not to patronize ABC that particular night. There are six other nights of the week on which I can watch ABC.

Of course, I don’t have children, so I can’t exactly relate to how parents’ groups feel. Their position is that such things should not be broadcast over the public (i.e., non-cable) airwaves during prime-time hours because children might see them. They have a point: TV isn’t like a cineplex, where children can theoretically be barred from entering certain films. If it’s on broadcast television, it’s available to everyone. But while I get that it’s impossible to monitor your kids 24 hours a day, at the same time, I think it should be fairly easy to detect if they’re watching a movie on TV that is THREE HOURS LONG. They might be able to sneak a five-minute peek at Cinemax when your back is turned, but a three-hour film? And one that would probably be boring to them anyway? I think most parents are competent enough to get a handle on that.

Even if “Saving Private Ryan” were indecent — that is, if the violence and language were completely gratuitous and the film’s social value did not outweigh its harsh content — airing it on ABC would be a victimless crime. No one has to watch it, and parents can keep their kids away from it. And even if children do tune into ABC and get an eyeful of severed limbs, what’s the result? They cry? They have nightmares? One airing of “Saving Private Ryan” on Veterans Day will not turn our nation’s children into desensitized sociopaths. That’s what video games are for.

If the FCC does impose fines against the stations that aired the film, it will be the signal that the FCC as it is currently configured has ceased to be useful. It will be in good company, of course; the MPAA, which determines movie ratings, reached that point years ago. But I’m hopeful that the FCC will dismiss the complaints of the activist groups and use a little common sense when it decides what’s decent and what’s not. The fact that Paris Hilton is allowed to cavort and bray on public airwaves without censure is surely an indication that the FCC and I have very different ideas of what constitutes “obscenity.”

Not kidding about seeing "Saving Private Ryan" on a date, by the way. A first date, at that. Don't ask me why.

I hope you'll agree that bleeped-out swear words in contexts where swear words do not normally appear are really, really funny. "Arrested Development" does it all the time, and it never fails to crack me up. My half-hearted apologies to those who were offended by my use of them.

This column was a milestone: It prompted my first angry letter since "Snide Remarks" became available by subscription only! Readers worried that the angry letters -- long a favorite part of -- would trickle off once the only people reading the column were people paying for it (and thus, one assumes, fans).

They were right, obviously; this first angry letter didn't come in until I'd been doing the subscription-only thing for eight months. But here it is, anyway:

I've cancelled my Snide Remarks subscription, partly because you now write for that despicable City Weekly rag, [Ah, guilt by association! My favorite!] and partly because you are so apathetic and middle-of-the-road on political and morality issues. [I suspect this is someone for whom "political" and "morality" are synonymous, but OK.] Putting down the American Family Association was the last straw. I don't agree with every position they take, but at least they take a position and try to do something about it. [Clearly this is a gentleman who has misconstrued my purpose as a humor columnist, which is not necessarily to take strong positions, but to make people laugh.]

Look up Rev. 3:15-16. Consider yourself "spued." [I'll save you the trouble: "I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth." It's the Lord talking, not a "Snide Remarks" subscriber, but I guess this fellow has applied it to himself and spued me out of his Paypal account and Internet bookmarks.]

Lee Zurligen

My Webmaster Brother Jeff pointed out that the only problem with getting angry letters during the subscription era was that they cost me money. Oh well.