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You can say that on TV

Thursday, December 11, 2003

By Rob Owen and Barbara Vancheri, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

On a recent episode of "Friends," Ross tried to take a photo of his year-old daughter in the park when a bigger child on the swings slammed him to the ground. "Son of a bitch!" he groused, much to the wide-eyed amazement of nearby youngsters.

Ted Crow, Post-Gazette

These shows broke barriers

"Oh relax," he snapped. "I didn't say the f-word."

"Friends" is going off the air in May, so Ross won't have the chance to say one of George Carlin's Seven Dirty Words. But some TV watchdogs worry that the f-word could become commonplace or, at the very least, that dialogue is salted with the sorts of language or images that would have curdled Ward Cleaver's coffee or gotten Gilligan banished from the island.

No one thinks twice about the word "ass" being sprinkled across CBS's Monday night lineup, networks airing "The Victoria's Secret Fashion Show" or guests on syndicated programs asking, "Who's my baby's daddy?"

TV taboos seem to be tumbling left and right. Some see this as a sign of enlightenment; others think the world is going to hell in a handbasket that's wired for cable and HBO.

"From the perspective of a parent concerned with what kind of images and messages their child might be exposed to on TV, I think the state of TV today is pretty deplorable," says Melissa Caldwell, director of research and publications for the Parents Television Council. "There's very little on broadcast networks or even on basic cable that's really suitable for a family audience."

Just this week, PTC released a study showing an increase in the amount of violence on television, rising to 534 incidents on the six major networks during the first two weeks of November 2002 from 292 incidents in the same period in 1998.

A PTC study comparing the sexual content of programming from November 1998, 2000 and 2002 found a slight decrease in the number of depictions or mentions of sex on prime-time broadcast TV (the free channels you get without cable). But the content was likely to be more explicit with references to kinky sexual practices, prostitution or pornography.

"We've also just done a study looking at foul language on TV ... and it is getting worse," Caldwell says. Mild expletives such as "hell" or "damn" have given way to coarser words, "and you can hear pretty much anything short of the f-word or s-word," although both have cropped up over the air.

The council, which was founded in 1995, has analyzed almost 90,000 hours of prime-time programming in recent years. It filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission after U2's Bono used the f-word on TV, saying, "This is really, really [expletive] brilliant" at this year's Golden Globes, carried live on NBC.

The FCC recently ruled that the language didn't meet its three-prong test for indecency, partly because the word was used as an adjective, not a verb. Caldwell, however, argues that children don't make such grammatical distinctions. "That's not how a child reasons."

The council, which uses a green-yellow-red system for evaluating shows (see for a list), encourages wholesome programming with a seal of approval and endorsement letters to advertisers. It also tracks the series it calls "on the leading edge," such as "NYPD Blue," because it may show bare buttocks at 10 p.m. and pave the way for something similar in an earlier time slot.

"There are undoubtedly things that some people would shrug their shoulders at and say, 'Eh, who cares? It's just a dirty word; words can't hurt people' -- that kind of attitude," Caldwell says. "I feel our views tend to reflect the views of our members, and they're fairly mainstream views in that most parents agree that children are entitled to their innocence" and that they want to preserve that as long as possible.

Caldwell says the failure of envelope-pushers such as "Coupling" and "Skin" might be viewed in one of two ways by the networks. Will they think they went too far or not far enough? "We hope they will compare that with the success of 'Joan of Arcadia' and realize that maybe family-friendly is the way to go," she says.

Rapidly changing scenarios

Of course, family-friendly may be in the eye of the viewer, just as taboos are. In 1965, Barbara Eden's genie outfit caused a stir at NBC, while Bea Arthur's "Maude" had television's first abortion in the next decade. ABC lost $1 million in advertiser support when two men were shown in bed on "thirtysomething" in 1989.

Amanda Lotz, an assistant professor of communication at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, points out how quickly one particular taboo has fallen: The depiction of gays on TV.

"It's astonishing how much things have changed since Ellen [DeGeneres'] coming out," she says. "That was a monumental deal, and every subsequent episode they put up a content warning on the screen at the beginning of the episode."

Lotz said the whole notion of media taboos comes from 1940s and '50s-era research that found the media affect people like an injection.

"If we saw it, we'd think it and do it," she said. "Since then, at least on the academic side, most of that theory has been debunked."

With so many channels now, Lotz says there is an opportunity for programming across a broader spectrum, from taboo-busting to wholly traditional.

"There should be PAX, there should be a place for people who don't want to hear explicit words or who have concerns about sexual content," she says. "At the same time, the audience is not all children, and there should be content as well on nonpremium channels for people who would like to engage in more sophisticated content."

Horace Newcomb, administrator of the Peabody Awards and a professor at the University of Georgia, says the increased number of channels has made possible the increased use of what was once taboo.

"The mass media used to function as a central cultural forum and everything there was shared widely and was under the guidance of cultural and social norms. Now the mass media are not very mass," Newcomb says. "People now function like it's a newsstand or music store, and you go up and down the aisles and pick what you want. I think we've lost something by not having a shared medium."

The rise of cable is also the reason networks give for more permissive standards of language, sexuality and violence. Cable networks can get away with it -- see FX's "The Shield" and ESPN's "Playmakers" -- and broadcast networks feel they need to follow suit to compete. Broadcast networks continue to follow stricter rules, but not by much.

Newcomb says television used to have many more content restrictions.

"In the early days there were prohibitions, like the famous one where you couldn't say the word 'pregnant,' and certainly any kind of profanity," Newcomb says. "Sexual innuendo was probably always there, but it was very veiled. Now it's become almost so explicit. I watched 'Will & Grace' last night and was really astonished at what can be done on broadcast television now."

Different, not shocking

Jeff Greenstein, executive producer of "Will & Grace," says his show doesn't strive to shock, but that it wants to be different.

"You're always trying to do stuff people haven't done before," he says. "You're trying not to repeat what you've seen on other shows, and that invariably leads to envelope pushing. ... You're constantly trying to advance the medium and challenge yourself to find ways to make things feel more honest and more real."

Greenstein said NBC executives were initially uncomfortable with the depiction of Karen (Megan Mullally) as a pill-popping boozer, but now it's accepted as part of her character. As for the show's sexual innuendo, Greenstein says it's better to be clever than blunt.

"I like when you find a funny, sly way of saying it, and censors like that, too. A good rule of thumb is it should fly over the head of an 8-year-old. You could laugh and they wouldn't, necessarily.

"One of the things that was tricky about [the now-canceled NBC sitcom] 'Coupling' is it was so bald and forthright. In an attempt to push the envelope, they sacrificed cleverness in the process. The idea is to make the audience feel like they're in on the joke. That's what innuendo allows you to do. But being blunt and laughing out of shock value, that's not something we try to do. It's two different approaches to comedy."

Profanity on rise

Along with a rise in the amount of sexual innuendo in prime time, profanity has become more prevalent, too. Carol Altieri, vice president of program practices for CBS Hollywood, has worked in the standards and practices department at CBS since 1972 and has seen many language taboos fall.

"There's a time I recall when 'damns' and 'hells' were still verboten, and then it got to the point where the dramatic imperative would dictate whether we could permit that," she says.

"In the early to mid-'80s, we started to loosen up on that because the audience seemed to accept it in manners that were appropriate, not just throwaway, but in dramatic moments when it was used for a specific purpose."

Now, it's not at all surprising for Altieri to see strong language in a script, although anything that takes God's name in vain is still off-limits.

"We don't just let it go by. If it comes out of a child's mouth we scrutinize it very closely, but for the most part that kind of language is fairly routine at this point."

Altieri attributes the permissive use of once-forbidden language to changes in society at large, which were reflected on television in the early 1970s when CBS canceled its rural sitcoms ("Green Acres," "Beverly Hillbillies") in favor of more socially relevant programs, including "All in the Family" and "Maude."

"I think it had a great deal to do with the American culture being shocked out of its innocence with the Kennedy assassination, the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination and all the civil unrest going on at the time," she says. "At that point, television was either going to become irrelevant if it stuck with programs like 'Green Acres,' or it was going to reflect what was going on in society. We began to readjust our frame of reference and our thinking in terms of what kind of content was acceptable."

What was in the news also had an effect on prime time, Altieri says, from profanity on recordings made in Richard Nixon's White House to Bill Clinton's sex-with-an-intern scandal.

"There are so many different contributing factors, and that is what continues today," she says.

Newcomb and Altieri both say changes in the lexicon have allowed for more vulgarity on the air. In some cases, it's because words have lost their sting.

"Words become depleted of their force," Newcomb says. "Some of the words that have been considered profanity and obscenity are almost like ordinary adjectives and verbs these days. They don't carry the same meaning, they're so common. They still have a huge meaning for certain constituencies in major parts of the public at large ... but the real question is, how many people can you offend with impunity? It's not so much least objectionable. It's what would count as the most objectionable, and where would enough people turn off to make a difference?"

Altieri recalls the controversy surrounding the pilot episode of CBS's short-lived sitcom "Uncle Buck" in 1990. In an early scene, a 6-year-old yells at her brother, "You suck!"

Altieri says CBS was in a ratings slump at the time, which made the network more willing to test the waters of what the public would accept. Management wanted to shake things up.

"We were interpreting scripts in a more lenient fashion, and when that issue arose in the pilot, I kind of questioned if it was a great idea having it come out of a little girl's mouth," Altieri says. Advertisers and affiliates reacted, but not in an overwhelmingly negative way. Audiences didn't like it at all, and the show disappeared after six months.

Socially acceptable

Today, of course, the same word is featured regularly in prime-time programs.

"I think it's a change in the lexicon," Altieri says. "Kids started to use that language, not because of 'Uncle Buck,' because I don't think every kid in the country saw that, but as a matter of their own separate kind of language. At this point it means 'god-awful,' 'horrendous,' 'it stinks.' It's not taken these days as having a crass, coarse meaning the way it once was."

Context is everything, Altieri says, especially when it comes to profanity. The four-letter vulgarity for excrement was used twice on CBS -- once in the '70s in a broadcast of the film "Network" and once in the '80s in a telefilm called "Day One" about the making of the atomic bomb -- and received little notice.

But when Mark Harmon used the word in an episode of "Chicago Hope" in the '90s, well, it hit the fan.

"The two times we used it in the past it just went right by because the context was so impeccable, so perfect, the audience was not shocked. It just fit right in with the material," Altieri says. "When we make these judgments we're looking very closely at [the question], is the viewer going to feel betrayed that we're coming into their homes spewing foul language? We don't want to alienate people if we can possibly help it."

But viewers do still have a say in what's acceptable on television. They vote with their remotes, and when enough of them say, "No, thank you," networks hear it loud and clear. NBC's "Coupling," marketed as the sexier successor to "Friends," and Fox's "Skin," set in the world of pornography, debuted this fall and were quickly rejected by viewers.

"The audience is really the barometer. They are the ones who tell us to go away, we don't like this, we're not going to watch it," Altieri says. "Nothing stays on the air unless people like it, unless there is an audience for it. We're all testing the waters in one way or another, and some of us get an unfortunate reaction and others don't. So it really is a crapshoot."

TV Editor Rob Owen can be reached at or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to under TV Forum.

Barbara Vancheri can be reached at or 412-263-1632.

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