The TV Issue

Why $#*! Our TVs Say Is No Longer Taboo

Once Forbidden, Sex, Obscenities Are Now the Norm on Broadcast TV, and Some Say Technology Is to Blame

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Credit: Illustration: Eamo

Sex and TV were once seen as a mismatch -- so much so that TV programs couldn't even show a husband and wife sleeping in the same bed. Now the two get along like, well, people having sex. And TV isn't so shy about meeting up with violence or profanity, either.

During this year's Oscars broadcast, one of the top events on broadcast TV, actress Melissa Leo celebrated her win for best supporting actress by letting out a spirited utterance of the "f-word" -- quickly bleeped out by ABC. The very act raised eyebrows, but no one is calling for the closure of the Walt Disney network. Likewise, "Southland," the gritty NBC-to-TNT cop drama, has routinely used harsh language, often rendered innocent by the use of audio editing.

Clearly, the shock of such words is less electrifying than it once was. SyFy's "Battlestar Galactica" managed to introduce the word "frak" -- a clear substitute for a dirtier word -- into the national lexicon, and CBS, perhaps the nation's most conservative network, seemed quite comfortable launching a show this season called "$#*! My Dad Says." Of course, this all follows years of outlandish animated fare, including Comedy Central's "South Park" and Fox's "Family Guy," where outrageous behavior is seen as the norm.

Despite all the gutter talk, TV networks maintain the issue remains delicate. A court case surrounding the exposure of part of Janet Jackson's breast on national TV during the 2004 Super Bowl continues to wend its way through the courts more than six years later. And yet, argues one broadcast executive who declined to be identified, TV "evolves with the culture," not the other way around. "We reflect culture more than leading it," this executive said.

If that's the case, TV networks -- cable and broadcast -- are showing us a world in which the harshest profanities, grisliest scenes and most private sex acts have become as much a part of our daily routine as brushing our teeth or drinking coffee. CBS's "The Good Wife" this season depicted its main character receiving oral sex from her husband (no nudity), before cutting away to a commercial (imagine being the sponsor whose ad showed up next). CW's "90210" has shown a teenage boy receiving oral sex in a parked car.

That's a far cry from "I Love Lucy" or "The Dick Van Dyke Show," in which networks were fearful of even letting spouses be depicted sleeping in the same bed. Why just as recently as 1990, CBS caused a stir when it aired an episode of sitcom "Uncle Buck" in which a child yelled "You suck!" in the show's opening moments.

What happened? While some may posit the nation has grown coarser over time, some observers suggest technology is the real culprit.

"The mass audience as we know it has been fractured by the proliferation of cable and internet channels," said Bob Pondillo, an associate professor of American media and social institutions at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn. As viral videos and popular cable programs -- relatively unfettered by Federal Communication Commission rules on content -- proliferate, the broadest TV networks are forced to play catch-up. And when they succeed, the smaller outlets have more ability to push further on the edges of the envelope.

"Commercially-supported TV has got to attract eyeballs -- no viewers, no ratings ; no ratings , no commercials; no commercials, no way to sustain the network," said Mr. Pondillo. "If programs with more overt sex, indecent language and vivid violence attract enough audience to make a market and sell products, well, that's what we're going to see."

Of course, there are still rules to obey. The FCC's famous "seven dirty words" (you can guess what they are) are still prohibited between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., when young children are more likely to be viewing. Obscene material is banned at all times. Increasingly, however, TV networks will refer to those words and acts in ways that are obvious to all. The sexual innuendo of CBS's "Two and a Half Men" airs well before that hour, and the grisly crimes of NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" are not for the faint of heart.

Are there any taboos left to break? Some ad buyers predict the nation will soon grow accustomed to hearing so-called swear words without the censor's "bleep," and that nudity might follow soon afterward.

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