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FCC Censorship Rules Vary for Broadcast, Cable, and Streaming

It’s about halfway through the fifth season of “Orange Is the New Black” when Elizabeth Rodriguez’s recently un-incarcerated, always opinionated Aleida sums up the plight of female-forward broadcast television writers everywhere with one simple, well-crafted exchange.

“Can I say ‘bitches?’” she asks a local newscaster and then, when she gets the green light, immediately and involuntarily exclaims, “s—.” The journalist, played by Thea McCartan, responds she can’t say that, to which Aleida replies, “What kind of f—ing bulls— rule is that?”

Although the writers may have simply been trying to show that Aleida was not as media savvy as she was street smart in this episode, which was written by co-exec producer Lauren Morelli, “in a lot of ways, we’re all like Aleida,” says writer-producer Carolina Paiz.

After years of working on broadcast TV, Paiz understands Aleida’s frustrations. On network shows, she notes, “We’re constantly censoring or told to self-censor. Even before the FCC has a way to weigh in, Standards and Practices is all over us.”

Paiz recounts her frustration from working on one unidentified show that had plenty of violence, but required the writers “to go back and forth and come up with 20 different racial slurs to see which one was more acceptable than the other.” She was also on ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” earlier in its run when writers were told that they “couldn’t say ‘vagina’ on a medical show but ‘penis’ was OK” — thus resulting in terms like “vajayjay” entering our lexicon. (A representative for ABC confirmed to Variety that “vagina” is now acceptable language.)

Ron Simon, curator of TV and radio at the Paley Center for Media, notes that since 1934 over-the-air television and radio has been regulated, including a “safe harbor” period between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Although the First Amendment prohibits outright censorship or interference with broadcasters’ right to free speech, during these hours content the FCC deems “indecent material” may not be broadcast because kids are arguably most likely to hear it.

Simon says most of the recent viewer complaints have come from live events, such as CNN’s decision to air the audio of Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” hot mic interview during the election or Stephen Colbert’s late-night monologue where he claimed to know the only thing the president is good for. Neither were within the FCC’s jurisdiction.

“It seems very arbitrary, if you look at the complaints,” Simon says. He’s not sure how much the “average viewer” has made a distinction between what is and isn’t regulated by the FCC.

“I’d like to get to the point where there’s virtually no censorship, and we’re pretty close.”
John Landgraf

Of course networks have their own rights to self-censor and Paiz’s experience with broadcast Standards and Practices is not unique. Museum of Broadcast Communications television curator Walter J. Podrazik says he has seen a “desire not to offend from the business side” since the days of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo, and Rob and Laura Petrie, sleeping in separate beds. He points to a scene in a televised production of the play “No Time for Sergeants” that aired in 1955 during “The United States Steel Hour” as an example. In the play, Andy Griffith’s character, Will Stockdale, is on latrine duty and decides to make all the toilet seat covers stand at attention and flush when his superior walks though. But the gag was deemed inappropriate for television audiences, so an orchestra played instead. Even by 1971, Podrazik says, it was a “big deal” when audiences heard a toilet flush in one of the first scenes of “All in the Family.”

“What is offensive or what is an imposition has sort of changed over the years,” Podrazik says. But he adds that writers and directors are crafty enough to “get around it and convey it without having to say the words.”

Fox’s “Empire” only used the most derogatory word for a gay man in the pilot (in 2015), since becoming more creative when reaching for terms an old-school music mogul might use to hurt his gay son. ABC’s “Modern Family” made light of an emotional situation in 2012 by bleeping the tirade of f-bombs that the young Lily (Aubrey Anderson-Emmons) unleashes during a wedding ceremony. But this year NBC’s “The Carmichael Show” aired the “n-word” unedited during primetime — albeit with a parental advisory notice appearing ahead of the broadcast. These examples all serve the argument that words can be hurtful, but hearing them can add to the authenticity of characters, diminish their shock potential and reclaim their ownership.

ABC’s anthology drama “American Crime,” which ended with its third season this year, was never gratuitous with foul language, but it did incorporate it into the show to capture the reality of its characters’ vocabulary. Its work-around for the FCC? A short cut to black.

Michael J. McDonald, one of “American Crime’s” executive producers, says early viewers thought something might be wrong with their screens, but “now, people are used to it, and when you watch it, you just fill in the word.” McDonald appreciates that ABC allowed these cutaways because it implies they’re “not shying away” from the language being spoken. “They’re almost saying, ‘We’re censoring this because we have to.’ ”

“American Crime” still had to fight battles for certain terms, though. “Lollipop” is not an acceptable euphemism for oral sex, according to the ABC S&P, and “dick” is banned as well, which McDonald says is “innately misogynistic,” considering you can say “bitch” as many times as you want in an episode. It is interesting to note, too, that when licensed on Netflix and airing in other countries, “American Crime” plays its scenes with the words intact.

“American Crime” censors itself for ABC but plays in full internationally.
Courtesy of ABC

Cable networks that are not as beholden to advertisers have slightly fewer censorship rules to which to adhere, but most are still selective with their language. Although shows on FX have used the “f-word” for years, and “The People v. OJ: American Crime Story” ran the gamut of racist and sexist commentary when depicting the infamous Mark Fuhrman tapes, its 2017 anthology “Feud” was the first to use the “c-word.”

“I’d like to get to the point where there’s virtually no censorship, and we’re pretty close,” FX chief John Landgraf told journalists during his executive session at the summer 2015 Television Critics Assn. press tour. Landgraf’s policy is to use as few “offensive epithets” toward women and minorities as possible.

“When they are used, they tend to be used in a context where you see they’re used by a character that is doing something wrong, and it’s pretty clear they’re doing something wrong,” he says.

Oddly, this issue is compounded by something for which many networks have been commended: a push for diversity. As series push to include more characters speaking foreign languages, there comes the problem of what is inflammatory in one country isn’t in another — even if those countries speak the same language, as McDonald found on “American Crime.” Similarly, Paiz says she once worked on show that had a character named Jesus. S&P was fine with his name if it was used with the Latino pronunciation, but she says they “dug in their heels” that his friends were not refer to him with the Anglicized one.

“I come from Latin America and they censor words that we say in Spanish in ways that make no sense,” says Paiz. She was also told that “under no circumstances” could she use the Latino insult “pendejo,” which literally translates to “pubic hair” but can also be used pejoratively to call someone a stupid or contemptible person, because they had gotten complaints about it before.

Paiz understands the reasoning behind these rules, even if they do feel arbitrary, but McDonald points out that an hour on social media — on which children spend a great portion of their day — can bring up more scathing language than anything available on scripted television. He believes cursing and strong language definitely have their places on television, just not on all shows.

“I don’t think people are going to be watching ‘American Crime’ and think, ‘Oh, dear lord. They said the ‘f-word!,’’” McDonald says. “You already have chosen to watch our show and know what the subject matter is. I think if you dropped the ‘f-word’ and the ‘n-word’ into an episode of ‘The Middle,’ that might be a little more shocking to a family.”

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