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Censorship in the Wild West

Arts & Culture | November 9, 2015

43 years ago, comedian George Carlin performed a stand-up routine calling out the seven words society fears most.

“Words. You know the seven, don’t you? Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits, huh? Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that will infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.”

Carlin’s routine struck a chord across the nation, not only for its shock value, but also for its biting critique of the paradigms that dictate our culture. And ironically, according to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Supreme Court, Carlin’s deliberate use of the “seven dirty words” made the material in his routine “indecent.”

But consumers of pop culture today seem to be more accustomed to the profane and inappropriate. In a time when Miley Cyrus can be seen essentially imitating sex on live television, and provocative shows like Family Guy and South Park, with their cursing and sexual themes, are shown on major broadcast networks, it can be hard to recall the days when offensive behavior was equated with Elvis’ rocking pelvis or a bowling ball-bellied Lucy Ricardo saying that, yes, she was pregnant.

Given that we are now more accustomed to programming that pushes boundaries, it’s no surprise that, according to the conservative censorship advocacy group, Parents Television Council (PTC), the use of profanity on primetime broadcast entertainment is only increasing. The group released a report in late 2010 titled “Habitat for Profanity,” which noted that the use of profane language on TV programming increased 69.3 percent from 2005 to 2010. The PTC concluded that contemporary television is too offensive for children and society at large, and they are continuing to push for stricter profanity censorship standards.

Though controversial, the FCC’s standards are accepted by major broadcast networks such as CBS, Fox, NBC, ABC, and the CW. Cable networks also usually abide by these regulations to avoid offending audiences and advertisers alike. Experts say the FCC’s standards encourage some networks to self-censor beyond even what is necessary. “It’s legally permissible for stations to air uncut R-rated movies after 10 p.m.—or to have Letterman and Leno dropping F-bombs. But you never see or hear that material from broadcasters because of the relationships and expectations we’ve built with our audiences over decades,” said Dennis Wharton, Executive VP of the National Association of Broadcasters, in the Washington Post.

But while the FCC maintains tight regulations that influence mainstream TV networks, many people today don’t even watch their shows on TV. With a new way to consume entertainment, content is becoming less controllable. Pay-to-watch streaming networks like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Video are a virtual wild west and are not bound by any of these regulations. At a time when it’s easier to access graphic content than ever before, many are questioning the efficacy of censorship and wondering if it even serves a purpose anymore.

Experts say that on the Internet, unregulated content is ubiquitous and almost impossible to regulate. “Some people say we should be putting a ratings system on websites. There are thousands of new sites that go up every day—how would anybody possibly have the bandwidth to rate websites?” said Tufts professor Julie Dobrow, whose research focuses on the effect of media on children.

On Netflix, anything is fair game, from Frank Underwood’s ruthless asides in House of Cards to the myriad of sex scenes in Orange is the New Black. When viewers can open their laptops and watch Piper curse out prison guards or discuss genitalia with intellectual rigor, it may seem illogical that the word “fuck” is still enough to send TV networks to court.

But some TV networks are unaffected by the constraints of censorship. Free from the pressures of advertisers, HBO is known to produce some of the most racy—and critically acclaimed—content on television. The network has no Standards and Practices department, allowing it to air programs like Sex and the City, The Sopranos, The Wire, and Game of Thrones—shows where boundary-pushing material affirms the channel’s original tagline: “It’s not TV. It’s HBO.”

 Dobrow believes that censorship models as they exist are not as sustainable. “There are so many different platforms that are out there now, and there’s no doubt that the potential for children to be exposed to more stuff is much greater. For that reason, I think there is a cause not for censorship, but for media literacy,” she said.

She suggested that for parents, teaching media literacy might be the only way to address material that is difficult to shield from children. Instead of covering their kids’ ears, an increasing amount of today’s parents are willing to talk about why and how a word is considered “dirty.” Dobrow said that media-literate youth will be able to understand the reasons behind the profane and graphic content on popular TV, which is a better alternative to being temporarily protected from it.

Today, censorship regulations like the FCC’s aim to provide this protection and perpetuate the notion of TV as a utopia. But now that Carlin’s “heavy seven” are only a click away, who knows how much longer we can keep America’s most vulgar words from creeping in at primetime.