If life seems more complicated now, consider the time and energy devoted to settling on the language that’s permissible on television.
Remember George Carlin’s routine (later hilariously amended) about seven dirty words you can never say on the public airwaves, which prompted a famous 1978 Supreme Court case? Obviously, the notion of never hearing certain words on TV has been obliterated by pay cable, which can and does say pretty much anything.
More interesting, however, is the nether-realm of boundary-pushing network and basic cable fare, where the seven words have multiplied (delightfully, if you’re as immature as I am) into dozens that raise red flags, as detailed in a production handbook issued to producers by a cable network that found its way to me.
Oh, and fair warning, because this is a business paper read by adults and I still giggle at seeing “shit” in print, we’ll gleefully use some expressions they can’t.
Scanning the two-page list of terms that producers are advised to “edit and flag,” “flag and review” or simply flag, I couldn’t help thinking of the poor bastards who monitor programming for the Parents Television Council. The group recently produced a study full of official-sounding statistics, extending to multiple decimal points average acts of violence (Fox, 11.37), sex (ABC, 5.97) and profanity (NBC, 5.52) on each network during the nonexistent “family hour.” (Before anybody questions the notion of fractional sex acts, I never would have survived high school without them.)
Implicit in the PTC analysis is the idea that networks flout standards of propriety and thumb their noses at God-fearing Americans. Yet if these elaborate guidelines demonstrate anything, it’s that far from cavalierly putting on material that offends delicate sensibilities, TV people put a tremendous amount of effort and thought into determining what’s appropriate, and then still piss off such watchdogs.
Perhaps foremost, the proscribed words (and if you want to see them all, go to Variety.com) underscore how hopelessly subjective these criteria are, which didn’t prevent media outlets from publishing the PTC data unburdened by any context. (The Los Angeles Times was more gullible than most, running a large chart detailing “incidents” of sex and violence as if they were the Dow Industrial averages.)
As a practical matter, it’s easy to fantasize about the meeting that generated the list, which begins with “arse” (presumably in case someone airs “My Fair Lady”) and closes with “wack off,” misspelling a word you’d expect broadcast standards censors to know.
Beyond Carlin’s objectionable utterances regularly heard during any “Deadwood” episode, the guidebook features an assortment of lewd anatomical references, sexual acts and racial, ethnic and religious slurs. There are also several lawyerly distinctions, such as the acceptability of mentioning body parts in a clinical context, or the difference between “jerk off” used in a sexual way (forbidden) or as a noun (OK).
Many permitted words (crap, scumbag, dickhead) owe a debt to “NYPD Blue,” whose producers petitioned ABC to paint with a broader brush in the early 1990s and gradually proved the sky wouldn’t cave in if someone said “asshole” or “bullshit” in a 10 o’clock drama.
That show represented a rare instance of consciously testing what’s tolerable, as opposed to the slow, steady drip that occurs as words gradually migrate from “edit” to “allow” — enabling TBS to use “douchebag” throughout an episode of its likable comedy “My Boys,” for example, and have that sound completely natural.
In truth, TV’s obscenities are much harder to quantify, and the most offensive excesses are frequently perpetrated during the daytime, such as the new “The Steve Wilkos Show,” which dabbles in topics like child molestation, stalking and pedophilia as a kind of burlesque act to unleash the hulking host’s righteous anger. Add to that the eroding news standards typified by NBC News’ “To Catch a Predator” series on “Dateline,” which, as ABC News’ Brian Ross reported last week, transformed law enforcement into a tool of TV, where the need for arresting video (and arrests on video) reigns supreme.
As for this column, like TV, evaluating its merits will depend largely upon the beholder — either an amusing look at the fruitless battle to govern content, or just another exercise in wacking off.
For the full list of naughty words, click here.