George Carlin counted down the “Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television” back in 1972, but over the past decade most have made their way onto the small screen.
And more of those dirty little terms may be allowed under a new ruling by a three-judge panel of the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York. On July 13, the judges deemed the Federal Communication Commission’s policies on what’s considered indecent on TV violate the First Amendment.
TV shows have been tumbling down that slippery language slope for quite a while now. First a few “bastards,” then a lot of “damns” and the next thing you know, you’ve got a title of an upcoming CBS show that could easily forgo all the random symbols in “$#*! My Dad Says.”
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But as the new crop of viewers raised in the Wild West culture of the Internet and lax cable standards emerge, traditional TV barriers could change quickly. Any viewer the FCC might try to protect has already had ample exposure to more than just those seven coarse terms on the Internet alone.
So what’s the point?
Keeping it real
Few of the salacious terms on Carlin’s list hold any shock power today. While still termed “the F-bomb,” the actual word seems more like a Fourth of July sparkler than a lethal weapon. And parents may be irritated when their child lets the word fly, but their hearts no longer stop.
Public watchdog groups have attempted to stave off the coarsening of our culture and encourage the attempts by the FCC to regulate the few remaining entities under its control. TV stations have to adhere to FCC rules to keep their licenses and face hefty fines if they don’t watch their language. But once the profanity genie popped out of the bottle on cable and the Internet, there was no going back.
The excrement synonym deemed verboten by Carlin and those in charge of CBS series titles has been uttered on many occasions on broadcast TV, beginning in 1999 on “Chicago Hope.” A few years later, the dying Dr. Mark Greene experiences excruciating agony from his terminal brain tumor on “ER” and let the word fly. The use of the word lent an authenticity to the story being played out on the screen. When hit by the massive bolt of pain, it would have been disingenuous to have the dying doctor double over and exclaim, “Shucks!”
Of course, the use of the colloquial terms for a woman or man’s body parts can be successfully avoided without fear of losing realism. But utilizing language in common usage can make the difference between a viewer buying into the reality of a scripted world, or laughing off the contrivance.
When “Southland” premiered in 2009, NBC promised it would take a “raw and authentic” look at the Los Angeles Police Department. That included some gritty language and bleeping out only the most notorious fornicating term — even though a first-grader could fill in the blank.
(TODAYshow.com is a part of msnbc.com, which is a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Salty with a twist
This fall, a new crop of shows filmed even before the court made its ruling had already sprinkled some salty language in the scripts. “Son of a bitch,” “goddamnit,” “bastard,” “bitch,” “ass” and “boobs” all invade the dialogue.
Fox series “Running Wilde,” which debuts Sept. 21, even goes for a U2 homage in a preview episode sent to critics. In 2003, after an exuberant Bono used the copulating expression as an adjective describing how thrilled he was to win a Golden Globe, the FCC tightened the obscenity rule to include even a single use of the word in a non-scripted moment. When Will Arnett’s character on “Wilde” gets a look at a huge trophy meant for him, he blasts the F out before the bleep censors the rest of the word. Perhaps this fall, he’ll get to say the entire word uncensored.
Producers can still opt to keep dirty words at bay with clever devices. Producer Shawn Ryan — known for his provocative and spicy language in FX’s “The Shield” — took on the problem of foul language on broadcast television with a clever twist.
His main character, a Los Angeles detective no stranger to the language of the street, tells his new partner, “I don’t appreciate profanity.” And he warns another cop tossing out a few “asses” and “screw yous” to “lose the language. There are women and children present.” That still doesn’t stop the script from describing the new police chief as a “smug bitch,” but it does cut down on the potential mass bleeping of the most frequently used street profanity.
Make the leap
It’s doubtful CBS will change the title of its new fall sitcom “$#*! My Dad Says” to the more memory-friendly Twitter account title the show is based on. That’s because beyond the fear of the FCC fines lies pressure from viewers and advertisers to keep prime time relatively clean. It’s the same non-FCC pressure that has worked to curtail much of basic cable, which relies on advertising dollars rather than the premium channels’ subscription-based business model.
In the season premiere of AMC's “Mad Men” on July 25, there was a pointed dig at advertisers who think that they can maintain a dated sense of modesty and still draw customers.
“Your competitors are going to kill you,” Don Draper tells the swimwear people unnerved by his slightly risqué campaign. “You can be comfortable and dead or risky and rich.”
Susan C. Young is a writer in Northern California.