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Saving First Amendment as well as 'Ryan'

HOW did a patriotic movie about young men giving their lives for their country turn into such a hot-button issue?

On Veteran's Day, ABC decided to continue its tradition of showing the unedited version of Steven Spielberg's passionate plaudit, "Saving Private Ryan."

While ABC-owned stations, including KGO-Channel 7 in San Francisco, aired the World War II movie, 66 ABC affiliate stations owned by a variety of companies, including Cox Television (which also owns KTVU-Channel 2, the Bay Area's Fox affiliate station), did not -- out of fear.

Stations located in Atlanta, Dallas, Honolulu, New Orleans, Milwaukee, Phoenix, Orlando, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., and Portland, Maine, decided not to air the movie because they might get fined for the movie's profanity.

"Ryan" tells the story of a group of Army soldiers on a mission to find and bring home a soldier whose three brothers are killed in action. It was inspired by the real story of the five Sullivan brothers of Iowa who perished when their ship went down during the war.

The film, a brutal look at war, has language reflecting that reality. Parental warnings are rampant. Spielberg sold the rights to air the film with the clause that it cannot be edited.

Who would have thought that in the heartland of Red States, this of all films would result in ABC affiliates deciding to break rank by refusing to broadcast the Oscar-winning picture?

Saying they were afraid of the current climate of intolerance for profanity on the airwaves by the President and Congress -- should we invoke the name of Joe McCarthy here? -- the affiliates told reporters across the country that they feared severe fines from the Federal Communications Commission.

The Founding Fathers felt freedom of speech was important enough to make it the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Apparently, that's not enough for broadcast stations to risk saving "Private Ryan."

I've always thought it odd that those who are the most fervent flag-wavers are the first to shut down the most basic tenet of our Constitution.

Again, keep in mind that this film already has aired twice on the broadcast network with nary a whimper. (Well, one complaint was filed with the FCC for language when it first aired in 2001, but the complaint was found to be groundless.)

Of course, that was before Janet Jackson had a wardrobe malfunction during the Super Bowl halftime, which resulted in each CBS station being fined $550,000.

Stations can be fined and their licenses revoked by the FCC for fouling the public airwaves. ABC offered to cover any fines the FCC might levy, but those affiliates who chose not to air the film told reporters they aren't taking any chances in the current political atmosphere.

Even a supportive statement from L. Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council watchdog group, which fired up the FCC about Jackson's mammary slip, wasn't enough to make the station owners change their minds.

"Context is everything," argued Bozell, who generally is on the sending end of FCC complaints. "We agreed with the FCC on its ruling that the airing of 'Schindler's List' on television was not indecent and we feel that 'Saving Private Ryan' is in the same category. In both films, the content is not meant to shock, nor is it gratuitous. We applaud ABC for letting viewers know ahead of time about the graphic nature of the film and that the film would be uncut.

"We will not be filing an indecency complaint with the FCC over the airing of this film, particularly because it has aired on television in the past."

So when you and most of the country are watching ABC's phenomenally successful, saucy adult drama "Desperate Housewives," it's being preempted tonight in the Bay Area -- keep in mind that this "Sex and the Suburbs" sort of show is next on TV watchdogs' hit list. At least one conservative group has been getting advertisers to drop out because of the salacious scripts.

Can the Witch Trials be far behind?

Investigating the Bay Area

Retired "60 Minutes" uber producer Don Hewitt always had an idea that the formula for the investigative news magazine could be transplanted locally.

Tonight, we'll get to peek at the shortened prototype, aptly named "30 Bay Area Minutes" at 6:30 on CBS-Channel 5. Hewitt, a consultant on the show, has transplanted familiar elements of the show, from the ticking stopwatch to the introductory billboards.

Instead of Andy Rooney, we get the Sugermans. KPIX reporter Mike Sugerman and his wife Janice do a little he-said, she-said on clothes shopping, which is cute.

The best report, however, may seem like deja vu to KPIX viewers. On Thursday's 11 p.m. newscast, a special report explained the Isologen technique, or tissue engineering, which lets the body rebuild itself.

Essentially the same report airs on "30 Minutes" tonight. The piece features Santa Rosa plastic surgeon Dr. Greg Chernoff, who used the technique on a badly burned woman with wonderful success.

Oh, and you can also get rid of your wrinkles.

The first segment is about Ford Motor Company's feckless venture into alternative fuel cars. Its program with the city of San Francisco and, in particular, the electric Think cars, failed according to this report because Ford couldn't get enough people on board to make it profitable.

The weakest segment centers on former 49ers Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Harris Barton and their company, HRJ Capital. We're told it's one of the fastest growing investment companies in Silicon Valley. The company raises money and invests in start-ups, real estate and leveraged buyouts.

The reporter on the 49ers story, Joan Ryan, deserves her solid reputation as a columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. But for her performance in this TV story, well, there's a reason why most of us write for newspapers instead of appearing on-air. Her voice is weak and reedy, and there's no on-screen charisma, which this story sorely needed.

A movie of destruction

And finally, file this under We Watch TV So You Don't Have To.

Instead of watching the four-hour catastrophe "Category 6: Day of Destruction" at 9 tonight and concluding at 8 p.m. Wednesday on CBS-Channel 5, you'd be better entertained standing in grocery store rush hour.

Or, you could throw caution to the wind and watch this natural disaster about three enormous weather systems that ultimately collide over Chicago. As if that wasn't enough, evil corporate types have taken short-cuts, so the power grid goes down at the hands of a hacker.

Of course, there's always the silly factor. Like, the ranting reporter trying to put out the real story. The city energy honcho cheating on his wife with a corporate spokeswoman/bimbo. And we haven't even gotten to the boyfriend holding up a bank because his girlfriend broke up with him.


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