On this day in 1997, an estimated 65 million people tune in to watch all or part of Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning Holocaust drama Schindler’s List on the NBC television network.
Starring Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes and Ben Kingsley, Schindler’s List (1993) told the true story of a wealthy German industrialist who helped a group of Polish Jews escape the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. Spielberg shot the great majority of the film in black and white, which only increased the shocking impact of its content. At the Academy Awards that year, the film won Oscars in seven categories, including Best Director and Best Picture. It was also a commercial success, grossing almost $100 million in the United States and more than $300 million worldwide.
On February 23, 1997, NBC broadcast the film in its three-and-a-half-hour entirety, uncut and uninterrupted by commercials, as per Spielberg’s request. The network made some effort to warn viewers about the film’s mature content, airing a message from Spielberg himself cautioning that the content was not appropriate for young viewers. Still, the number of viewers who watched Schindler’s List at home that night was more than double the number who watched it in the theater when it was released in 1993. The next day, while addressing the National Association of Broadcasters, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Reed Hunt praised NBC’s showing of the film, stating that it “showed us again the power and glory of broadcast TV.”
Controversy arose the following day, however, when Senator Tom Coburn, Republican of Oklahoma, issued a release blasting NBC for airing the uncut film, saying it had taken network television “to an all-time low, with full-frontal nudity, violence and profanity” and that it should not have aired the movie “on a Sunday evening during a family time.” Coburn, head of the conservative Congressional Family Caucus, brought on a firestorm of negative publicity with his remarks, drawing criticism from fellow conservatives, such as William Bennett and Jack Kemp, as well as from Democrats. Coburn later issued an apology on CNN, stating that he thought the movie should have been aired, just in a later time slot. “I think that at that time of the evening there are still large numbers of children watching without parental supervision,” Coburn explained.