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Few red flags over a blue streak

'NYPD Blue' pushes the language envelope again, introducing a new expletive into its mix. The reaction? It's been mostly a chorus of yawns.

October 27, 2002|Brian Lowry | Times Staff Writer

Anyone who grew up listening to comics like George Carlin and David Steinberg in the 1970s developed a pretty good sense of language and the words that were -- and weren't -- permissible to say on television.

Times change, however, as demonstrated by the fact that "NYPD Blue" quietly added a particular barnyard epithet to its lexicon this season -- one that loosely translated means "nonsense," at least according to the dictionary -- and practically no one uttered a discouraging word.

"Because of the nature of the show, it goes right by," said producer Steven Bochco, acknowledging that the term in question (an eight-letter word used to describe the stuff cattle leave in the field) has been used in each episode this fall, the long-running police drama's 10th season. "The landscape has so changed people don't even notice it.... If you didn't write anything about it, I guarantee you, no one would say, 'Boo.' "

A few critics did mention the compound word in passing, with most hyphenating out the objectionable half, but that's been about it. An ABC spokeswoman said the network has logged only a few phone complaints thus far -- a decidedly ho-hum response, given that the show's average weekly audience is close to 13 million people.

A small confession here: I watched three episodes of "Blue" without noticing the word myself and probably wouldn't have without an e-mail from Jeff Marlin, a devoted viewer who lives in Valley Village, Calif., who asked if there had been any public reaction to the relaxed policy.

Marlin, 45, said he was hardly shocked by the language, just surprised there hadn't been any fuss given the hullabaloo that followed the use of a more condensed expletive on "Chicago Hope" in 1999.

(Anthony Edwards' character used the same word in last spring's "ER" finale, to little fanfare.)

"I don't think the word is obscene anymore," Marlin said. "You just have to know your audience. In police work, they aren't saying 'please' and 'thank you' to perps." Besides, he added, "If you watch 'The Sopranos,' 'NYPD Blue' is tame."

That, of course, has long been Bochco's argument. Before the series premiered in 1993, he suggested that the show needed to paint with a broader palette to be realistic -- especially in light of the R-rated material found on cable. When he asked this year again about expanding "Blue's" vocabulary, ABC relented to a degree, noting that the drama runs at 10 p.m. and its audience is by now quite familiar with its content.

Still, that concession shouldn't imply the network has abandoned its oversight. Despite the decision to allow Bochco to run with the bulls, as it were, network standards-and-practices executives vetoed an attempt to switch to the term for horse droppings, leaving the producers somewhat puzzled.

Pamela Munro, a UCLA linguistics professor, has certainly seen a shift in attitudes on campus. She began publishing a slang collection from interviews with students in 1988 and has updated the survey every four years, most recently during the 2000-2001 school year.

"From 1988 to '96, there was a tremendous change in the perceived acceptability of these so-called bad words, " Munro said. With very few exceptions, the students had "a greatly increased tolerance. They thought it was amusing that people would find these words offensive."

(The Times, by the way, takes a conservative line on coarse language and generally does not publish such words.)

Even groups that regularly decry the coarseness of prime-time television have, almost by necessity, let concerns pertaining to language slide a bit. The Parents Television Council, for example, dropped words like "damn" and "butt" from its roster of objectionable expressions a few years ago because they were so prevalent on television.

The aforementioned Steinberg, now an active commercial and TV director, actually built a comedy routine around the expression now being used on "NYPD Blue" during his stand-up days in the 1970s, pointing out that the Webster's Dictionary -- by providing the synonym "nonsense" -- had somehow found the one guy in the world who clearly didn't know what it meant.

At the time, the word still possessed the power to shock. "It was radical to say ... on stage live," he said. "I usually closed the set with it. It used to polarize the audience, and it almost identified you as a counterculture person. It's amazing how far we've come."

Steinberg added that while there is a tendency to speak in terms of decades, he detected a shift around the time of Watergate. His routine, in fact, paid off with a reference to President Nixon talking about Vietnam, saying that to call that policy "nonsense" didn't work.

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