After huge fines and public outrage, the now infamous Janet Jackson "wardrobe malfunction" at the 2004 Super Bowl was supposed to have had a chilling effect on broadcast television's drive to rattle the cages of social convention. But instead, the major networks have only gotten hotter, particularly when it comes to language.
Moments like last month's bleeping of Sally Field's expletive at the Emmys can be a distraction to what has actually been going on in prime-time scripted programs for years -- the steady rise in coarse language. Unlike live award shows, live sporting events or cable, broadcast television operates in a much stricter world where government decency rules are at their tightest, the word choices most carefully considered and the level of scrutiny -- and potential for fines -- are at their greatest.
And yet, crude words and references in prime-time programming are at an all-time high. And as the new fall season pours out into viewers' homes over the coming weeks, the one certainty is that the dialogue will only get more colorful.
To critics, the language is another depressing sign of a lowest-common-denominator culture sinking ever deeper into vulgarity. To many TV writers and others, however, it's a largely harmless phenomenon, not to mention a more realistic reflection of everyday conversation -- and any gnashing of teeth over it stems from the nation's prudish Puritanical heritage.
Language is a singular spoke in a larger societal wheel of complaints about television and pop culture in general that includes racy sexual content and unrelenting violence as well -- something most network executives and writers contacted for this story did not want to talk about on the record. Nonprofit groups such as the Parents Television Council are pressuring lawmakers to find a way to broaden their powers over the medium in hopes of steamrolling, even rolling back, what they consider the disturbing trends.
"It's a clear path from not too long ago where we had standards for language to where there are practically no standards anymore," said Tim Winter, president of the L.A.-based watchdog group whose 1.1 million members generate the overwhelming majority of complaints the government receives about TV's offensiveness. "We're talking about broadcast television in prime time, not a New York taxi stop, not a football locker room, not the way a vice president may talk in private."
Fighting for its share
The trend has occurred during a time in which the major networks are battling for audience in a freewheeling and crowded entertainment universe where rougher words can mean the difference between being seen as hip and relevant and being square and extinct. In fact, if you compare what passes for uncouth on nighttime TV with popular music, adult-oriented movies and snarky websites, it's practically an oasis of civility.
"If a joke is just as funny saying 'penis' than 'pecker,' that's fine," said Greg Garcia, who opted for the latter word in a January episode of his hit NBC comedy, "My Name Is Earl," now in its third season. "But sometimes it's funnier to say 'pecker' and that's what you have to do because it's our job to make people laugh."
Words such as "hell," "damn" and "bitch" that only a generation ago were practically verboten are common today across the prime-time schedules of all the major networks. From 1995 to 2005, the percentage of shows that threw around sexually-derived vulgarities shot up from 41% to 64%, while shows that incorporated scatological vulgarities rose from 58% to 83%, according to the PTC, which tracks offensive language, sexual content and violence on television.
In fact, only one of the so-called seven dirty words made famous by comedian George Carlin has not been aired on prime-time TV when including ABC's showing of the graphic World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan." Three of the words have been spoken in scripted prime-time shows.
While the letters of the banned dirty words do not regularly find their way into prime-time material, clearly their spirit does. For example, this season the CW's new teen drama "Gossip Girl" referred to a group gathering as a "fustercluck." Last season, Emmy-award winning "30 Rock" worked around a particularly obscene slang word for a woman by substituting a rhyming word for it. The name of the episode was "The C Word."
Because it uses public airwaves, broadcast TV must contend with the Federal Communications Commission, which charges broadcasters with avoiding "indecent" language -- in particular, from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. As with pornography, the government has had trouble establishing a clear-cut definition for offensive language, but basically it must violate "contemporary community standards."