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About those seven words

Since George Carlin's landmark routine, the effects of those 'filthy' words have changed.

June 27, 2008|Frazier Moore | Associated Press

NEW YORK -- More than 30 years after George Carlin pronounced "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," some of those words have lost their sting.

Some of those words still aren't welcome on the public airwaves (or, for that matter, in print) and they are still being debated in the courts.

But you can hear those words voiced in everyday discourse more than ever.

Carlin, who died Sunday at age 71, would caution ironically that the seven words "are the ones that'll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war."

Of course, times -- and wars -- have changed. At least one of Carlin's words (a rude term for urine) wouldn't raise an eyebrow on much of broadcast TV now. Meanwhile, none of them is alien to premium cable.

Those words were heard on television in 1977, on Carlin's first HBO comedy special, "George Carlin at USC." They fall into predictable categories: bodily waste; sexual acts; and female body parts.

"When he used those words, he wasn't just trying to shock," said Richard Zoglin, who wrote about Carlin in his recent book, "Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America." "He was trying to make a statement that's familiar today, but wasn't so familiar back then: 'Why do we have this irrational fear of words?' "

Premium cable, and even basic cable, has far more freedom with content than broadcast, which is carried on public airwaves by stations licensed by the Federal Communications Commission.

For broadcast, the Words are actually words the FCC says can't be heard before 10 p.m. -- when the "safe harbor" for young viewers applies. But exactly what those words are, and under what circumstances they may be permissible, is currently unclear.

"The networks are being careful, because even in this kind of flux, you don't want to push too far," said T. Barton Carter, Boston University professor of communications and law. "Vagueness and inconsistencies in regulation can have a chilling effect on broadcasters."

The FCC changed its policy on indecency following a January 2003 broadcast of the Golden Globes awards show by NBC when U2 singer Bono used the F-word. The FCC said that word "inherently has a sexual connotation" and "can trigger enforcement." That case has yet to be resolved.

Recently the U.S Supreme Court has entered a legal fight over words aired by Fox in 2002 and 2003 on live broadcasts of "The Billboard Music Awards." Cher used the F-word, and Nicole Richie used both the F-word and a fecal reference.

Scheduled to be heard by the Supreme Court this fall, the case would decide whether the government can ban "fleeting expletives," one-time uses of familiar but profane words.

Dropping an "F-bomb" on a broadcast won't automatically blast open the floodgates, said Tim Winter, president of Parents Television Council, but he warned, "It's a slow accumulation. First it's once every several months. Then it becomes once a month. Then it becomes once a night."

"That's our concern for some of the words that are at issue here," said Winter, who's also an avowed Carlin fan: "It's unfortunate that a brilliant comedian like George Carlin is a poster child for the lawsuits that are out there."

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