Standards of Decency Evolve With the Times

Jun 9, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin was wrong when he claimed that his agency’s policy barring “fleeting expletives” on TV didn’t represent a significant departure from past policies.

The court decision he was responding to involves live TV airings by Fox Broadcasting of the 2002 and 2003 Billboard Music Awards.

During the former, Cher said, “I’ve also had critics for the last 40 years saying that I was on my way out every year. Right. So fuck ’em. I still have a job and they don’t.”

A year later, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie had this on-air banter:

Hilton: “It feels so good to be standing here tonight.”

Richie: “Yeah, instead of standing in mud and . Why do they even call it ‘The Simple Life’? Have you ever tried to get cow shit out of a Prada purse? It’s not so fucking simple.”

The FCC then moved to find the stations that broadcast the two live shows liable for violating the indecency prohibitions. In the past the FCC had not fined broadcasters for fleeting expletives said during live shows. The FCC first changed its policy after Bono, excited about winning a Golden Globe Award during a live broadcast in 2002, said, “[T]his is really, really fucking brilliant.”

The 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals rejected the FCC’s holding that Fox had violated the new indecency rules and struck them down. Responding to last week’s decision, Mr. Martin, in a written statement, took exception to the fact that the court had failed to find “fuck” and “shit” indecent. Furthermore, he said, “If we can’t restrict the use of the words ‘fuck’ and ‘shit’ during prime time, Hollywood will be able to say anything they want, whenever they want.”

That’s just not true. Even in the worst-case scenario, wherein Mr. Martin might think that most network and broadcast executives are totally irresponsible—which, by the way, is 180 degrees from the truth—almost all of television is advertising driven, and marketers will not support programming laced with indecency.

Language evolves. What once was taboo is now fair game, and what once was acceptable is now radioactive. As Joe Pickett, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, explained to us, a word such as “screw” or a phrase such as “get off on” was once highly sexually charged but is no longer. In eras past, “damn” was considered verboten, but most people would not consider it offensive today.

If Mr. Martin wants to scour the airwaves for true obscenity, he should concentrate more on finding racial and ethnic epithets, which now are recognized as truly indecent and profane.


  1. I strongly disagree with your conclusion. Normal folks and they are still the majority don’t use these words and find them offensive. I find your suggestion that they are normal frightening, disturbing and challenging. I can only use the power of one to not purchase the goods and services of sponsors who allow this stuff. I do not watch the celebrity awards shows because I have little or no respect for people who live their lives in the gutter. I would advocate going back to the “studio” system where the animals had handlers.

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