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The creeping of TV bleeping

The art of the deleted expletive has gone mainstream, with even such prime-time fare as 'American Idol' joining a trend toward slyly censored cursing. What the [bleep] are the networks thinking?

June 12, 2011|By Melissa Maerz, Los Angeles Times
  • Once largely relegated to slips of the tongue during live events, censored cursing has evolved into a pre-planned, or at least largely expected, punch line that's network-approved and no longer lowbrow.
Once largely relegated to slips of the tongue during live events, censored… (Scott Menchin / For The Times )

Reporting from New York — — Say what you want about Steven Tyler's famous lips, but it's hard to deny that they have a way with the F-bomb. During the 10th season of "American Idol," the singer dropped enough of them to blow up a small European country, and a network-censored montage that aired during the show's finale captured many of his best ones: "That was [bleep]-ing crazy good! Holy [bleep], what did I say?" "Slap that baby on the [bleep] and call me Christmas!" "Hellfire, save matches, [bleep] a duck and see what hatches!"

Getting bleeped: It's not just for awards-show speeches anymore. Once largely relegated to slips of the tongue during live events, censored cursing has evolved into a pre-planned, or at least largely expected, punch line that's network-approved and no longer lowbrow. Over the past few years, even smart network comedies such as "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" have used bleeps to elicit laughs. And since last summer, when the FCC lost much of its power to fine networks, some writers are bleeping a blue streak.

Whether you blame it on Bono's "[bleep]-ing brilliant" outburst at the 2003 Golden Globes or chalk it up to TV scribes' freedom of speech, the use of bleeped curse words on television has risen steadily, particularly over the past few years, according to a recent study by the Parents Television Council, an L.A.-based media watchdog group. Across all networks and prime-time hours in 2010, a bleeped or muted S-word aired 95 times (up from 11 times in 2005) while a bleeped or muted F-word aired 276 times (up from 11 times in 2005). Last year, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Federal Communications Commission's efforts to limit "fleeting expletives" to late-night television, a ruling that has severely hampered the government agency's ability to punish what it deems indecent language.

As a result, some contend that networks are taking full advantage of the FCC's diminished capacity and are making a concerted effort to popularize profanity on television. Critics didn't have to strain themselves to find examples in May: NBC unveiled its fall comedy "Up All Night," which finds Christina Applegate playing a new mama who swears like a mother; a very pregnant Tina Fey hosted "Saturday Night Live" and confessed in an expletive-ridden promo that, "[Bleep] yeah, I'm swearing for two these days!"; and Tyler cursed with such consistency and oddball hilarity on "Idol" he fully earned the "bleep stick" that the show's producers gleefully bestowed upon him.

"It's more than just a coincidence that, a short time after that ruling, we had '$#*! My Dad Says' coming to CBS," argues Melissa Henson, the PTC's Director of Communications and Public Education. "We have certainly have seen more explicit language since then."

Henson points out that ABC recently picked up two pilots with expletives in their titles — "Good Christian Bitches" and "The Bitch from Apartment 23." Both titles were cleaned up when they were picked up to series in May, but Henson says ABC is testing viewers' boundaries.

Granted, it's hard to tell exactly where those boundaries lie. Some believe that the FCC's indecency rules were obsolete long ago, since they reflect a world without cable or the Internet.

"There's no doubt that cable has always been less restricted, so there's more pressure on networks to do the same thing," says Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. "But the networks are caught, because even though the courts have slapped back the FCC, the networks' reputations are still smarting from the fines that were initially assessed to them."

Before most households had cable, many viewers were watching the same handful of television channels, which meant that the FCC effectively policed prime-time programming for a large percentage of American families. But today, the average household with a television can choose among 89 channels, according to Nielsen Media Research, which means parents have dozens of G-rated options, from Nickelodeon to the Cartoon Network.

Meanwhile, viewing habits have gotten more personal, with more viewers choosing what and when they watch instead of accidentally happening upon, say, Melissa Leo cursing her way through her Oscar acceptance speech. Regulation gets even trickier when the same shows that air on broadcast television are being watched on the Internet, which, like cable, isn't regulated by the government.

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