The Raleigh, N.C. affiliate of NBC censored “Saturday Night Live” in nine different parts of last night’s broadcast, citing language used by comedian and host Dave Chappelle and raising concerns on social media of whether broadcasters could become more wary of edgy content under an administration led by President-elect Donald Trump.
WRAL in February swapped its affiliation with CBS for one with NBC. At the time, NBC touted the move as one that gave the network access to “one of the most powerful and highly rated affiliates in the nation.” The station is owned by the independent Capitol Broadcasting.
During an emotional, post-election broadcast of the venerable “SNL,” however, some of Chappelle’s language proved too much for station executives. “WRAL-TV has a station obscenity, decency and profanity policy that outlines 10 specific words that will not be broadcast on our air. This policy is based on our own standards in combination with FCC guidelines. Our broadcast operators have a 10-second delay button they can choose to use. During Saturday Night Live on NBC, guest host Dave Chappelle used 2 of those words on 9 different occasions and they were silenced,” the station said in a statement. “Obviously, SNL is a live show so we had no prior indication about what would be said during the broadcast. We understand this caused disruption during the program. We wanted our audience to know this was a station decision, not the network’s, and why we made that choice.”
The station tried to cut the audio for part of Chappelle’s monologue, during which he used a reference to female anatomy that is generally considered vulgar. That word has risen more frequently in conversation since the revelation of a 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump boasted of being able to grab women by that body part.
After making a joke about staying in a Trump-owned hotel and asking a housekeeper if he could grab that anatomy, Chappelle immediately apologized on air to “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels. WRAL’s attempt to edit that word failed, local viewers said, and instead resulted in the words after the phrase being silenced instead.
The station also cut the sound during a taped segment that spoofed the popular drama “The Walking Dead,” and featured the return of multiple Chappelle characters from a popular series he started in on Comedy Central last decade. Viewers reported hearing audio cuts during another sketch that appeared toward the end of the program that feature cast members Leslie Jones and Kyle Mooney.
Capitol Broadcasting has long enjoyed a reputation for maintaining its own content standards. While it was affiliated with CBS, the company would air local sports games in primetime, or swap out programming it thought wasn’t suitable for viewers. WRAL in 2002 declined to air one of CBS’ Victoria’s Secret fashion shows, according to a 2003 report in The Wall Street Journal. In another instance, it refused to air a CBS dating program called “Cupid.” Instead, it re-aired old episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“SNL” broadcast the show during a charged time among many of its viewers, with the nation roiled by the Trump election. The show opened with cast member Kate McKinnon playing Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, singing musician Leonard Cohen’s elegiac “Hallelujah.” “I’m not giving up, and neither should you,” the character told viewers. “SNL” also ran a sketch featuring Chappelle and Chris Rock offering counterpoint to a group of white urban Clinton supporters who seemed to have forgotten a lot of U.S. history.
Reactions among people who heard about the censorship via social media were mixed. Some people expressed the sentiment that the station’s decision heralded a crackdown on free speech in America under Trump, while others noted the strong language warranted being censored on broadcast TV.
The decision to cut the audio of the show didn’t keep WRAL from posting a news story Sunday morning praising “Saturday Night Live.” An Associated Press column found on WRAL’s site Sunday called the broadcast a “thoughtful coda” to a controversial presidential election cycle.
[Updated, 1 PM PT]