Saving Private Ryan

February 6, 2012 by staff 

Saving Private Ryan, In colorful give and take, the Supreme Court debated whether policing curse words and nudity on broadcast television makes sense in the cable era, one justice suggesting the policy is fast becoming moot as broadcast TV heads the way of “vinyl records and 8-track tapes.”

The case involves programing that is available to all viewers free over the air – even though many now receive it through paid cable connections – during hours when children are likely to be watching.

Some justices said they were troubled by inconsistent standards that allowed certain words and displays in some contexts but not in others.

One example frequently cited by the networks was the Federal Communications Commission’s decision not to punish ABC for airing “Saving Private Ryan,” with its strong language, while objecting to the same words when uttered by celebrities on live awards shows.

Justice Elena Kagan said the FCC policy was, “Nobody can use dirty words or nudity except Steven Spielberg,” director of the World War II movie. Other justices seemed more open to maintaining the current rules because they allow parents to put their children in front of the television without having to worry they will be bombarded by vulgarity.

Chief Justice John Roberts, the only member of the court with young children, hammered away at that point. Robert wondered why broadcasters would oppose FCC regulation, especially when cable and satellite service can offer hundreds of channels with few restrictions.

“All we are asking for, what the government is asking for, is a few channels where … they are not going to hear the S-word, the F-word, they are not going to see nudity.”

Justice Antonin Scalia placed himself on the side of the government. “These are public airwaves. The government is entitled to insist upon a certain modicum of decency. I’m not sure it even has to relate to juveniles, to tell you the truth.”

But at least one justice, Samuel Alito, talked about how rapidly technological change has effectively consigned vinyl records and 8-tracks to the scrap heap, suggesting that in a rapidly changing universe, time will take care of the dispute. Already nearly nine of 10 households subscribe to cable or satellite television and viewers can switch among broadcast and other channels with a button on their remote controls.

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