By Brian Steinberg
Take a dollar sign ($) and some hash marks (#). Add an asterisk (*).Throw in an exclamation point (!).What do you have? A clear signal that the debate over TV profanity is largely done as far as network executives are concerned.
Those marks allude to a popular four-letter word that, by Federal Communications Commission mandate, cannot be uttered on broadcast-network TV in the early parts of prime time. So when CBS launches its buzzy new sitcom called this fall, the network will likely leave the first word of the title silent or simply bleep it out.
No matter how CBS chooses to cite the title, the network has little concern about how this program (based on a Twitter feed and starring William Shatner as a grumpy father who invites his son to move in with him) will be received, even if it does air at 8:30 p.m.—at a time once considered "family hour”—on Thursdays, the most important night for advertisers. The show "is a comedy people will absolutely be talking about," said Nina Tassler, president-CBS Entertainment, during a recent presentation to advertisers (where the network also described the program as a place where "the Shat hits the fan").
Marc Morse, senior VP-national broadcast, at media-buyer R.J. Palmer, thinks the program could do well. Mr. Shatner’s presence is likely to attract attention, said Mr. Morse. Besides, he added, "I’ve heard worse on network television." Such confidence in a show that contains a scatological reference in the title just goes to show what comparatively little controversy profanity, sex and violence on TV generates among modern-day advertisers. You can chalk it up to bawdier fare surfacing on HBO and FX, raunchy network shows turning up at all hours in cable reruns or syndication, or even the general coarsening of popular culture. What’s really happening, however, is that as broadcast-TV audiences erode, the networks no longer have to churn out bland fare that appeals to everyone and his or her dentist. Instead, they can lure large slices of audience who tune in for quirkier, edgier material — and expect blood, sex and, yes, rude language as part of the experience.
"If you want to reach a specific demographic, it makes more sense to develop content that is really going to speak to them," said Derek Johnson, an assistant professor who studies media culture at the University of North Texas. "And in the process of speaking to one group, you are likely going to alienate another, but it’s really just fine if it’s not the audience you want to reach that’s getting alienated."
Such a thought might have been rejected just a few decades ago. Each of the top 10 shows on broadcast TV for the week ending April 18, 1982—ranging from "M*A*S*H" on CBS to ABC’s "The Love Boat"—captured 17 million viewers or more. Yet during the corresponding week in 2010, only three shows, two broadcasts of Fox’s "American Idol" and one of ABC’s "Dancing With the Stars" topped that. With smaller audiences comes opportunity, perhaps, to do something more daring. When "Southland" made its debut on NBC in 2009, the network allowed the characters to say such things as "shut the fuck up" and "show me your tits," bleeping the obscene words as they were said. At the time, NBC executives said people tuning into a dark police drama expected saltier content. The gritty show didn’t cut it on NBC, but has moved to Time Warner’s TNT, where a similar policy holds.
And backlash against sex, violence and profanity has softened over the years (see below after this article). There will be some outrage. Scheduling "$#*! My Dad Says" at 8 p.m. is "a poke in the eye for that large part of society that is, indeed, concerned about the role television plays in our national culture. Our culture has coarsened, of course, but that is in no small part because of television redefining acceptable standards," said Jeff McCall, a professor of media studies at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind. "The nation’s acceptance of bad language is simply not as great as the networks would have us think. This kind of language is not used in business, educational, legal or any other setting where civil behavior is expected."
And the new show’s title has one advocacy group up in arms: "I ask the defenders of indecency on the public airwaves: How does the v-chip block this one?" asked Tim Winter, president of the Parents’ Television Council, in a news release issued May 20.
Of course, smart advertisers want to appear as if they toe the line on decency. Yet their indignation usually erupts only after they get caught aligning themselves with content that offends a segment of the populace.
"I have longtime clients who are as conservative today as they were 10 years ago," said Mary Price, principal-brand media, at Dallas independent agency Richards Group. But to get advertisers rallying in public against edgy programming would likely require tying outrage to crimped sales and revenue downturns — and that remains more difficult. "I’ve not worked with a client whose brand’s sales or awareness suffered when they were targeted" by outrage or boycotts, she said.
CBS contends it is not looking to offend. "You can rest assured the show and the promos will be fully within CBS standards," said Martin Franks, exec VP-planning, policy and government affairs at CBS Corp. "We are in the business of attracting an audience and attracting advertisers at the same time."
Lucy and Ricky Ricardo must say Lucy is "expecting" rather than "pregnant" on "I Love Lucy."
"Saturday Night Live" cast member Charles Rocket utters the "f-word" during the show. He would be dismissed not soon after along with other members of the cast in a cost-cutting move
Fox comedy "Action" includes characters using the "f-word," although it’s bleeped out.
On "Chicago Hope," a character played by actor Mark Harmon utters the phrase "Shit happens" on CBS. 2002: Characters on ABC’s "NYPD Blue" utter the word "bullshit" several times during the course of the season.
CBS airs documentary about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and does not bleep out profanities uttered by firefighters responding to the emergency. Network says the language was appropriate to the program.
Cher and Nicole Richie utter curses during different telecasts of the Billboard Music Awards on Fox.
U2’s Bono utters the phrase "fucking brilliant" on NBC’s Golden Globes, spurring FCC scrutiny of profanity on TV.
ABC decides to run critically acclaimed film "Saving Private Ryan" without deleting profanity in dialogue.
NBC launches "Southland," a gritty cop show that clearly includes profane words in the script, but audibly bleeps them out.
"SNL" newcomer Jenny Slate utters "fuckin’" by accident, but the incident is largely forgotten.