Does Bleeping Profanity on TV Make Any F--king Sense?

To Networks It's Necessary to Avoid Offense, but Rules Seem Arbitrary to Some

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NEW YORK ( -- Viewers watching the debut of NBC's "Southland" heard one cop tell another to "shut the fuck up" and another jokingly tell a cop working undercover as a prostitute to "show me your tits."

While NBC bleeped out the words, it was abundantly clear what was being said. But the very fact that the network felt the need to put a semigloss on harsh language -- even though it appeared in a gritty drama that initially aired at 10 p.m. on a Thursday -- epitomizes the confused TV world in which we live. Depending on whether you are watching cable or broadcast, prime time or late night, reality or drama, such words are sometimes considered OK, other times strictly off-limits, and still other times acceptable if hidden with a bleep (which arguably attracts even more attention).

'Southland': Cops on NBC's new show routinely employ colorful language.
'Southland': Cops on NBC's new show routinely employ colorful language. Credit: NBC
To some it's archaic, given the growing use of video on demand and web viewing, which abide by no such rules, and indeed there is a sense that standards are changing. More TV outlets are putting together more-sophisticated dramas, which gives them license to use grittier language. The average cable subscriber can hear a dirty word while watching subscription-only HBO or even ad-supported FX. Reality programming that features real people speaking their minds has become so prevalent that harsh language -- or bleeped-out swearing -- is relatively common. Watching Gordon Ramsay on Fox's "Hell's Kitchen" or "Kitchen Nightmares" sometimes resembles taking a hearing test.

It's encroaching on scripted programming as well. "We wanted to make ['Southland'] realistic. That's just the way cops speak on the street, and that's the way they're spoken to," said Christopher Chulack, executive producer of the program.

Yet by indulging efforts to be realistic and cosmopolitan, networks risk condemnation from groups that police the airwaves. The "Southland" bleeping "does strike me as a way of skirting that line between language that the networks know most would consider to be off-limits for broadcast television and yet incorporating it nonetheless," said Melissa Henson, director of communications and public education at the Parents Television Council. "It seems to me they are trying to inure people to that kind of language on TV. If we can get you used to it with the bleeping over it but you know what we're saying, then perhaps in time you'll be OK with us saying it without the bleep."

Practical implications
It might be just a philosophical discussion except that there are advertiser dollars at stake. (A recent Saturday-evening repeat of the debut episode of "Southland" included an ad from squeaky-clean toymaker Mattel, which did not respond to an e-mail query seeking comment.)

Advocacy groups can put pressure on marketers that support these programs. One reason for the demise of CBS's "Swingtown," a drama that looked at families "swinging" in the 1970s last summer, was a lack of advertising support for risqué subject matter. The Federal Communications Commission has demonstrated an interest in punishing networks for utterances of profanity in recent years. A group of ABC affiliates in 2004 balked at showing the critically acclaimed war film "Saving Private Ryan," for example, because it contained harsh language.

Network executives say it's important for them to air dramas that reflect the lives of today's viewers, but in doing so, they can run up against standards that have their roots in decades past. Asked whether viewers would be more shocked to hear profanity on a broadcast network such as NBC than on a premium cable outlet such as HBO, "Southland's" Mr. Chulack said, "There's so much media out there that I don't think people make that distinction."

Whether you agree there's no place on TV for cursing or accept that it's part of the language as it exists today, it is impossible to miss that the rules today seem to be mostly arbitrary and based in a time when there was a much larger distinction between broadcast and cable, and when a TV time slot was a fixed appointment to view. Here's a scorecard of where you can and can't say George Carlin's famed seven dirty words -- and others on TV:

Broadcast: It's still the toughest place for a discouraging word to be heard. The broadcast networks are governed by the FCC, which has been holding their feet to the fire since the infamous Janet Jackson incident during the 2004 Super Bowl. Even so, profanity has made its way into dramas, most famously "NYPD Blue" on ABC. As viewers' taste for mature, sophisticated programming evolves, the feeling is they'll tolerate an epithet or two, so long as the context is appropriate. At the same time, networks have taken sterner measures in recent years to keep harsh language off the air during live events, including awards programs. "A lot of it has to do with the audience expectation, the nature of the audience and the nature of the program," said Alan Wurtzel, president of research and media development at NBC Universal, when asked about "Southland." Mr. Wurtzel oversees the network's standards and practices.

Cable: Subscription-based channels such as HBO can do more or less what they please in the way of language (witness "Deadwood," which wove in colorful phrases almost as much as it did "and," "but" and "or"). As cable tries to up the ante against broadcast, several channels are making use of intelligent dramas about flawed characters, including FX, which has allowed profanity on "The Shield" and other places, and even ESPN, which allowed profanity in a recent drama about coach Bobby Knight. FX doesn't allow the F word on air and puts its mature dramas on at 10 p.m. Meanwhile, many ad-based cable networks continue to censor language in their airings of popular Hollywood films, including the "Lethal Weapon" franchise.

Reality: Since these programs are based on the travails of "real" people, it makes sense that viewers might hear some "real" language. Typically profanity is bleeped out, and some networks place pixels over people's mouths to make it more difficult to discern exactly what, for instance, the hot-headed chef on Fox's "Kitchen Nightmares" is actually saying. Still, it's quite clear when an invective is being hurled on an episode of "Cops." What you gonna do?

Drama: This genre seems to be the place where most profanity fits well. Comedies are lighthearted, and often air earlier in the evening, when children are watching. Dramas typically air at 10 p.m., when less family viewing takes place. "NYPD Blue" had characters use the word "bullshit" on several occasions without bleeping. It's telling that in 2002 NBC was able to run an episode of "E.R." in which Dr. Mark Greene, a character who was suffering from a terminal disease, uttered an expletive in frustration at not being able to get out of bed without much backlash. The program routinely showcased dire and desperate medical cases, and aired at 10 p.m.

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