LOS ANGELES, (Reuters) – Dozens of CBS television affiliates are balking at network plans to rebroadcast the acclaimed documentary “9/11” for fear that coarse language by firefighters in the film may incur stiff new fines for indecency.
About 12 CBS affiliates have opted to skip the documentary altogether and run other programming in its place, while a dozen others plan to air the film later at night when fewer children are watching and more mature content is generally allowed, network sources said on Friday.
They said two dozen additional affiliate stations were still undecided about whether to preempt or delay the documentary, set to air on the eve of the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on America by suicide hijackers.
The two-hour film, produced by French filmmakers Gedeon and Jules Naudet and retired firefighter James Hanlon, was aired twice before by CBS in 2002 without regulatory consequences.
But broadcasters have become extra cautious about running afoul of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission amid an ongoing crackdown on profanity and other content the agency deems to be in violation of its decency standards.
Potential fines for indecent broadcasts were recently increased tenfold, from $32,500 to $325,000 per violation for each station carrying the material.
Regulators do not give advance guidance to stations before a specific broadcast is aired. But CBS spokeswoman Shannon Jacobs said network executives were satisfied “9/11” would pass FCC muster again after discussing the issue internally.
Jacobs said all 21 of CBS’s network-owned stations, including outlets in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, will carry the uncut documentary as scheduled.
The FCC ruled last year that ABC’s Veterans Day 2004 broadcast of the acclaimed World War Two drama “Saving Private Ryan” did not breach decency rules despite complaints about profanity and graphic violence in the movie.
“One could expect the historical context of ‘9/11’ to similarly be considered,” FCC spokeswoman Tamara Lipper told Reuters. “But the commission only responds to viewer complaints. We haven’t seen the broadcast in question, and it is always the decision of individual stations what to air.” Jacobs said CBS was sympathetic to affiliate jitters.
“Given the current regulatory atmosphere, the decision by some stations to delay or preempt ‘9/11,’ even though it aired twice in 2002 and will include appropriate audience warnings, is regrettable yet understandable,” she said.
The film, narrated by actor Robert De Niro, was compiled by footage shot inside the north tower of the World Trade Center in Manhattan after it was stricken by the first of two hijacked airliners. No actual carnage is shown.
But the horror and bewilderment of the moment is captured on the faces of seasoned firefighters as they react to the devastation unfolding around them, including the off-screen sound of victims who had jumped from the towers slamming into the pavement outside the lobby.
In light of those circumstances, the network felt it was on safe ground leaving uncut the numerous expletives uttered by the firefighters in the Emmy- and Peabody Award-winning film.
“It’s hardly titillating or exploitative,” one CBS executive said. “One of the considerations in the indecency standards is supposed to be context. And I think the fact that these guys are at the gates of hell, it gives them some latitude.”