By Joshua Bottomley
In 1972, George Carlin premiered his famous foul mouthed stand up bit “7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television.” This paradigm of profanity has since influenced countless copycats and its immortal resonance has helped transform television from straight laced entertainment to an unbleeped Eden of expletives. The routine has long served as the banner for the battle of freedom of speech and expression but Carlin’s shtick has become dated in its 30-plus year run. He himself had amended and struck words from his original list to fit with the changing times. Now, almost all of the unmentionable words have been said on TV with increasing regularity. Thanks to the late, great, comedic genius, we as a society have grown up with potty mouths and are now clamoring for our ears to be filled with indecent terms.
Home Box Office, or HBO, was unveiled in 1972, the same year as Carlin’s infamous tirade. It was one of the first subscriber-based services to offer uncensored, original programming. 1st and Ten, a situation comedy starring Delta Burke, debuted in 1984. It featured a fictional football team’s trials and tribulations dealing with a female owner, and flaunted more boobs and F-bombs than many were accustomed to seeing on the small screen. This move by the fledgling cable network was a brave departure from their other original shows, which included family favorite Fraggle Rock. But the success of that one program, coupled with the growing stand up comic talent of the 1980’s, which was directly influenced by Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor, generated righteous waves of vulgarity that are still being surfed today.
In the 1990’s broadcast TV decided to take the reins of free speech and expression. ABC aired producer Steven Bochco’s television show NYPD Blue, which consistently stirred up controversy for its use of language and nudity, but despite constant FCC fines, Bochco and Company stuck to their guns and stayed the course for 12 seasons before retiring the badge. This was the last broadcast television show to constantly test the boundaries when it came to language on prime time broadcast TV. Now shows like FOX’s 24 will feature graphic torture sequences but Jack Bauer’s worst curse word is “Dammit.” And he says that often.
Although NYPD Blue helped pave the way for adult themed television, it was again HBO who honed the blade of uncensored entertainment. The enormous success of The Sopranos and Sex in the City helped propel the renaissance of foul-mouthed language to stratospheric heights. Mobsters were expected to have a low life vernacular ala Goodfellas, but the atypical lewdness and graphic gossip of Carrie’s crew depicted the reality of sex starved single ladies dealing with getting older in a big city, which resonated with a legion of women. By playing with the bad boys and the bad girls, HBO roped in two major cash cows. While most networks are vying for the 18-25 year old demographic, HBO had ensnared an older generation, as well as the young, of both males and females with the holy trinity of sex, violence, and foul language. Our Roman ancestors would be proud.
This trend has not gone unnoticed. While HBO has been ramping up its original shows including, Entourage and Hung, Showtime has jumped on board with controversial programs such as Weeds and Californication. Starz has even climbed on the wagon with its new show Crash, a spin off of the Oscar Winning Motion Picture. These cable networks are free from FCC jurisdiction because they are paid services, which basically boils down to a buyer beware scenario.
But what few people realize is that Cable television itself is a subscriber service, and that the rules garnered by the FCC only overlook the television broadcast networks including ABC, CBS, NBC, FOX, UPN and the CW. Channels such as Comedy Central and FX are part of cable subscription packages and are therefore considered pay stations, which do not fall under the FCC umbrella.
So why has cable television waited until now to start testing the limits of decency? One word: advertising. Unlike HBO and Showtime who run commercial free, cable TV is still dependent on the dollar bills of other companies in order to bring their programs into homes. This means that the advertisers have to stand by the product the station is pushing, as well as be free from consumer protest.
In recent years we have seen the fallout that can occur from pulled advertising, most notably in the radio realm. “Opie and Anthony” were banned from broadcast airwaves in 2002 after encouraging a couple to copulate in a church, and Don Imus lost his job following a racist remark in 2007, only after advertisers pulled out of his Imus in the Morning Show.
In television, this past September, 31 advertisers pulled sponsorships from the CBS show “Two and a Half Men” at the urging of the Parent’s Television Council, a conservative right wing organization that has become profanity policing pen pals with the FCC. The PTC reported to over 90 sponsors of the hit show and stated that the program contains “sexual scenes and jokes, and frequently airs foul language. There are countless jokes involving oral sex, male genitalia, and luring women into bed – and all of these situations often include dialogue with a child actor.”
Advertisers and the FCC react based on public opinion. The FCC does not patrol the airwaves looking for indecent material. Their involvement is merely a reaction to public outcry and only then do they investigate the claims that are set at their doorstep. Out of the many complaints they do get, only discrepancies that fall between the hours of 6am and 10pm are subject for sanction. After 10pm, it is basically up to the networks themselves to keep their shows under control. This is why there has been no fine for NBC when actress Jenny Slate said “I fucking love you for that” during a skit on the September 29th episode of Saturday Night Live.
After last week’s broadcast of the American Music Awards, where singer Adam Lambert was involved in an oral sex simulation and also swapped spit with his male keyboard player on live television, the Parents Television Council President Todd Winter released the following statement:
“The Parents Television Council is calling on its members in areas where the oral sex scene aired before 10 pm to contact the FCC to complain about last night’s show,…In addition, every corporate sponsor of the ‘American Music Awards’ can rest assured that they will hear from the Parents Television Council and its members. Advertisers spend billions of dollars on television every year to influence viewer behavior. Their behavior influence does not cease when the commercial break is over. Every advertiser will be held accountable for underwriting the AMA program’s content, including the simulated oral sex scene.”
Note that on the East Coast, the incident occurred after 10pm, so broadcasters in that time zone are not held responsible on indecency claims, whereas the Left Coast had to edit out bits of the performance. ABC is being lambasted by the PTC and the Liberty Counsel because in the Central time zone, Lambert’s erotic dance footage occurred 9:55PM. That’s five minutes before the 10PM FCC cutoff time. ABC has reported that out of the 14 million plus viewers they have received a mere 1,500 complaints about the performance.
A similar awards show situation erupted in 2003 when Bono of U2 uttered the phrase “fucking brilliant” after his group won a Golden Globe. Initially the FCC decided not to impose sanctions because the use of the word “fuck” was not used in a sexual manner. In this instance “fuck” was used as an adjective and not a verb, thus it was deemed acceptable. Weeks later, the FCC overturned its own ruling after backlash from the Parents Television Council. The FCC’s new definition of the term is “the "F-Word" is one of the most vulgar, graphic, and explicit words relating to sexual activity in the English language. Its use invariably invokes a coarse sexual image. We conclude that the broadcast of the "F-Word," under the circumstances presented here, is vulgar, graphic and explicit.” The situation is referred to in its company paperwork as the “Golden Globe Awards Order.”
These are organizations, comprised of competent adults, that are so offended by certain words of the English language, that they cannot even use the words in their official documentation. The juvenile substitutions of “f-word” and “s-word” reduce their arguments to condescension. While the FCC quotes the presumed offenders accurately, the PTC and even the Supreme Court have chosen to censor themselves so as not to rub their constituents the wrong way.
Fuck, the queen-mother of all swear words is still not in regular use by cable TV shows, yet. It can be heard on networks like Comedy Central during their infrequent “Secret Stash” time slot, which features uncensored R-rated movies and Stand Up films like Chris Rock’s Bigger and Blacker. But the unbleeped terms “Shit”, “Pussy”, and “Asshole” along with their many derivatives are freely flowing from the mouths of characters on shows such as Sons of Anarchy and The League without so much as a batted eyelash. The advertisers of stations like FX, a sister station of FOX, has realized that the demand for such content is astounding, and if they are only governed by their advertisers, then why not push the envelope? Sons of Anarchy has beaten Jay Leno’s new talk show in the ratings proving that gritty, hard nosed, television is being more widely accepted and sought after than late night broadcast comedy.
Life is made of both positive and negative. Just like heroes need villains, every language needs bad words that they can censor. Those words, what they represent, and the fight to silence them has provided jobs and put people in office. It is a hapless crusade to keep their lives and the lives of their children unsoiled by the box. Is it unfair? Of course it is. Why should letters put in a certain order be scrutinized and shunned more than any other combination? Like George Carlin said, “Boobs is an answer now on the Match Game… Boobs $200, tits, $200 fine.” But only before 10pm. In this ever-changing society it seems that the demand for art to imitate life is at an all time high. The public not only wants to hear these words, they are paying for the privilege. Whether it is through subscription services or standard cable, the vulgar voices are speaking loud and clear. And those who are fighting to keep the airwaves free from what they consider indecent are slowly dissolving like the bar of soap they put in their children’s mouths.