Is There Too Much Cursing on TV?
2010 MTV Movie Awards
There sure is a hell of a lot of foul language on television these days.
You may have noticed some profanity if you sat through the MTV Movie Awards on June 6. Always a rollicking event where celebrities can cut loose in a way they wouldn't on a traditional trophy show, the telecast was laced with so many vulgarities that whoever was in control of the "bleep" button couldn't keep up. "It's very tricky when people start dropping F-bombs right and left," said one veteran standards and practices executive who has experience in "riding the button" during live programs. "It's very hard to catch them all."
MTV issued a rare public apology to viewers who found the language that slipped through objectionable and deleted it in repeat airings of the show. But it's clear that after decades of having R-rated movies come into their homes, people are more freely using coarse language on camera. Even President Obama told Today's Matt Lauer about finding some "ass to kick" over the Gulf oil spill. Use of the seemingly un-presidential word hardly caused a stir. "The society is changing and there seems to be a lot more tolerance," says Alan Wurtzel, who oversees standards and practices for NBC.
A cable network such as MTV can take liberties with language. There is little risk when a live event goes out of control, as the network doesn't have to answer to the FCC on content issues, as a broadcast network must. You can even hear the S-word on shows such as TNT's The Closer. "There was a time when there was a similarity in respect to language and standards," says Wurtzel. "Everybody followed similar rules. Now there are different kinds of distribution platforms and the programs they have reflect different standards. Cable can do pretty much whatever it wants."
Over-the-air broadcasters, however, not only have to worry about fines from the FCC but also more rigid expectations from advertisers. A seemingly more cavalier cultural attitude about profanity could lead NBC News to add a delay to Today, where a 13-year-old girl uttered the C-word twice during an interview with Meredith Vieira on June 10.
"I think we have to consider it," Today executive producer Jim Bell tells TV Guide Magazine. "When we feel it's appropriate, we try to remind our guests that it is a morning television show. But if a young girl is polite and proper in a pre-interview, you don't expect her to use that word."
Still broadcasters are getting edgier as they try to stay contemporary and competitive with cable. The upcoming CBS sitcom $#*! My Dad Says has an implied profanity in its title. While it's based on a wildly popular Twitter account that has spawned a best-selling book, you will never hear the expletive on the show (a bleep will be used when promoting the title on air). The Parents Television Council, a watchdog group that targets broadcasters over racy content, is already raising a fuss. But the network is just being provocative, not profane. Says Wurtzel, "If a word is bleeped and it doesn't air, it's not an issue."
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