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The bare facts about AFN’s cleaned-up films

Officials deny censorship in response to complaints

By JULIANA GITTLER | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 20, 2005

It was Halle Berry’s first on-screen nude scene.

Halfway through “Swordfish,” she lowers a book she’s reading, exposing her breasts.

Said one reviewer on Amazon.com: “There is one redeeming feature about this film: the soundtrack. That, and you get to see Halle Berry naked.”

So viewers on military bases throughout the world may have been surprised to see the dazzling Ms. Berry wearing a bikini in the infamous scene.

Blame the Federal Communications Commission, American mores and a PG-14 rating. But don’t blame American Forces Entertainment, which aired the movie Wednesday.

“We are forbidden by Congress from censoring AFN programming in any way,” wrote Sgt. 1st Class Gary L. Qualls Jr. from the AFN Broadcast Center in California, in response to a Stars and Stripes query.

But, he added, “AFN, along with NBC, CBS and ABC must adhere to FCC ‘over-the-air’ broadcast standards relating to content. This means if a movie is to air on a TV station, it must meet certain standards for, among other things, language, nudity and sexual situations.”

AFN gets its movies from distributors, who create several versions of a movie, including director’s cuts and sanitized versions for television. In “Swordfish,” the topless scene also was filmed with a bikini top for television.

And television networks excise nudity, sex, explicit language and excessive violence to meet FCC guidelines.

Airlines tag on additional rules, such as not showing air crashes or other scenes involving flying that would put it in a bad light. Airlines also require hundreds of “nicer” words to be substituted for the original ones and bar nudity and anything that could really spoil a dinner service. If distributors send AFN those versions of movies, the content meets airline rules, according to Qualls.

So, for example, the scene in “Almost Famous” in which a character admits he’s gay during a dangerous airplane descent was removed not due to any AFN homophobia but because of the airline industry’s reluctance to show frightening airplane scenes to passengers.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Rob Morrison says the censorship in movies AFN runs is too much for an adult audience.

“We’re all adults here. Why should we be so sheltered overseas when people are paying for this cable service?” Morrison asked. “We’re all adult enough to be fighting for our country. If I want to see a little [nudity] I think I’m entitled.”

Petty Officer 2nd Class Joseph Holliday had the chance to catch “Showgirls” on AFN one night.

“It was pretty funny,” Holliday said. “By the time all of the nudity and swearing was cut out, there wasn’t much left to the movie. I thought ‘Why did AFN bother showing it?’ It wasn’t because of the plot.”

On rare occasions, Qualls said, AFN receives a movie before a broadcast or airline version has been made. “In those instances, AFN will ‘edit’ the movie. But again, we are editing it to meet government broadcast standards, just like any TV station would, not ‘censoring’ for editorial content reasons,” he wrote.

The FCC rules can be flexible. Content that might be removed from other movies can be retained to preserve a film’s artistic value, as in “Schindler’s List,” which showed nudity, and “Saving Private Ryan,” which carried offensive language and combat violence. Several ABC affiliates opted not to show “Ryan” on Veterans Day last year due to fears the FCC might take a harsher stance on obscenities, according to a Washington Post report. AFN did play the movie, though.

But there appears to be less ambiguity about the relevance of Berry’s breasts in “Swordfish.” Although it was one Berry’s fans won’t forget, the scene was altered for television according to the FCC standards.

The original R-rated version is for sale in base exchanges for fans demanding the artistic purity of the original.

Fereeda Seunath, a Yokota mother whose children are 10 and 4, said milder versions of movies are more appropriate for a military environment where “mom and dad go away sometimes.”

“I think the TV version of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ would be fine,” she said. Cutting out graphic scenes would be good “because kids see and hear that stuff all the time anyway. … It helps them to just see the storyline and history, without having to see the gory part of it.”

Citing a lack of rental options overseas, Seunath says many military families stockpile huge video collections so “we can get the movies we want.” However, AFN’s content has never been an issue in her household.

“We thoroughly enjoy AFN,” she added. “I have no problems with it.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Allison Batdorff and Vince Little contributed to this story.


FCC rules govern what stations are allowed to broadcast

When is a four-letter word OK?

According to the Federal Communications Commission:

“It is a violation of federal law to air obscene programming at any time. It is also a violation of federal law to air indecent programming or profane language during certain hours. Congress has given the FCC the responsibility for administratively enforcing these laws. The FCC may revoke a station license, impose a monetary forfeiture, or issue a warning, if a station airs obscene, indecent, or profane material.

Obscene broadcasts: Prohibited at all times

The Supreme Court established the definition of obscenity. The Supreme Court’s definition is designed to cover hard-core pornography. Obscene material is not protected by the First Amendment and cannot be broadcast at any time. To be obscene, material must meet a three-prong test:

  • An average person, applying contemporary community standards, must find that the material, as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest;
  • The material must depict or describe, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by applicable law; and
  • The material, taken as a whole, must lack serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.

Indecent broadcast restrictions

The FCC has defined broadcast indecency as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community broadcast standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” Indecent programming contains patently offensive sexual or excretory material that does not rise to the level of obscenity.

As such, the courts have held that indecent material is protected by the First Amendment and cannot be banned entirely. It may, however, be restricted in order to avoid its broadcast during times of the day when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience.

Consistent with a federal statute and federal court decisions interpreting the indecency statute, the Commission adopted a rule pursuant to which broadcasts — both on television and radio — that fit within the indecency definition and that are aired from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. are subject to indecency enforcement action.

Profane broadcast restrictions

The FCC has defined profanity as “including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”

Like indecency, profane speech is prohibited on broadcast radio and television from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

— The Federal Communications Commission

Halle Berry, John Travolta and Hugh Jackman starred in the 2001 film “Swordfish,” which appears on American Forces Network in an edited, nudity-free version.
COURTESY OF WARNER BROS.

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