In Depth

You Won't Get Fined for Saying 'Frak'

How TV Networks Are Able to Broadcast the Dirtiest Word -- Sort Of

You can't say that word on TV -- or can you?

No one on broadcast TV is supposed to be able to use the four-letter profanity that starts with the letter F and signifies sexual intercourse. Even on basic cable, the word is often edited out of movies and usually not inserted into original scripts. In short, when it comes to that word and TV companies who wish to court mainstream advertisers and audiences, healthy distance is usually helpful.

On April 10, NBC's '30 Rock' featured segments of a mock reality show known as 'MILF Island.'

Some networks, however, are cleverly dodging the issue.

Obscenity on TV "has been on the back burner since the Janet Jackson debacle" in the 2004 Super Bowl, said Steve Kalb, senior VP-director of broadcast at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Mullen. "If it starts to raise some eyelids, it will be more of a concern overall."

Some recent F's

In an episode that aired April 10, NBC's "30 Rock" featured segments of a mock reality show known as "MILF Island." The first word is a sexualized acronym used to describe a fetching older woman. Meanwhile, CW has been running a promotion for teen drama "Gossip Girl" that uses the text-message phrase "OMFG" -- an acronym for something one might write, text or e-mail if one were quite surprised, felt the need to acknowledge a higher deity and wanted to use an offensive word for emphasis.

Looking for another example? Let's journey across space and time, where characters on Sci-Fi Channel's "Battlestar Galactica" regularly use the word "frak," which Mark Stern, the outlet's exec VP-original programming, freely acknowledges is a substitute for a term that could be more offensive. "Well, it obviously means fuck. I don't think I'm giving any family secrets out," he said. "I think we've already done 'clusterfrak' and 'motherfrakers' and pretty much every iteration of the word."

The new creative ways of lacing dirty words into the living-room experience may seem fun, but there's often a price to pay: ad dollars. The history of TV is filled with protests over harsh words and egregious sexual references. A single viewer's indignation in 1989 over Fox's racy "Married With Children" prompted blue-chip marketers including Procter & Gamble Co., McDonald's Corp. and Coca-Cola Co. to end or curb their advertising on the sitcom. Nearly two dozen ABC affiliates initially refused to carry "NYPD Blue" in 1993 because it contained what was -- for the time -- racier-than-usual language, as well as tasteful glimpses of nude bodies.

Some of TV's most buzzed-about programs -- think "The Sopranos" -- make liberal use of salty language, which puts pressure on basic-cable and broadcast networks to come up with stuff that's equally gritty and realistic, yet not offensive to broader audiences.

Skirting the edge

With this in mind, some broadcast programs have proven able to skirt the edge when it comes to language and violence. In 2002, for instance, viewers were able to see the arm of "ER" antagonist Dr. Robert "Rocket" Romano hacked in two during a slow-motion amputation performed by a swirling helicopter rotor. On News Corp.'s Fox, an actor's bare bottom was displayed during the action series "Fastlane." Elsewhere on the dial that year, Mark-Paul Gosselaar, the actor who once played Zack on teen-oriented "Saved by the Bell," was heard to utter the expletive "bullshit" at least twice on "NYPD Blue."

Oh, how times have changed since Ms. Jackson bared her bosom at the Super Bowl! The Federal Communications Commission has cracked down on harsh language -- even at live events, when celebrities might utter a rude phrase now and again -- and levied fines.

At NBC, the decision to include ear-perking terms is always a "case-by-case judgment. We're certainly mindful of the issues with respect to the rules," said Alan Wurtzel, president-research, NBC Universal, who also oversees broadcast standards. In the case of "30 Rock," he said, "we've always felt that the people who get the jokes aren't going to be offended." In other words, as long as audiences expect a taste of the ribald from a particular program, that show might be able to push the envelope.

Media observers have long suspected that programming is bound to move away from the bland and over the years acquire a spicier tang -- with only use of the F word and excessive nudity forbidden. While "the FCC's current mind-set is in favor of continuing to crack down," said Pantelis Michalopoulos, a partner at Steptoe & Johnson who specializes in telecommunications law, "I wouldn't be surprised if, in the longer term, we move towards a picture where broadcasters are given no less First Amendment freedom than any other purveyor of news and entertainment."

Perhaps that means people who try clever things like "F" might get A's for effort in the long haul.