TV profanity ruling opens doors to public airway vulgarity


A panel of federal judges in New York ruled 2-1 June 4 that profanity on TV is OK at any time. That decision will ensure many more "can-they-do-that-on-TV?" moments in your living room:

It's a Sunday night at 7 o'clock. You sit down with your two children, ages 6 and 10, and flip on the television hoping to find a suitable program. As you scan the channels your 6-year-old girl catches a glance of her favorite pop-princess star Britney Spears dancing around the stage, and begs you to return to the music awards program. You're skeptical, but then think, "what harm could an awards show filled with singing, dancing, and acceptance speeches really do?"

Just as you are pondering this, you distinctly hear one of the announcers utter a word that you would expect to hear on an episode of the Sopranos. It's the four-letter f-word and it's let loose on the Fox network—not HBO; not Showtime, but on a public broadcast network airing way too early in the evening.

You quickly change the channel. Your children stare at you waiting for an explanation of why you have told repeatedly that this was an inappropriate word, yet famous people were saying it in your living room.

Is this how it really should be?

Are people, especially families, expected to be OK with being constantly exposed to unfiltered content on television without warning? Well, that's the implication of what the New York court did, ruling that broadcasters can't be penalized for expletives that are considered "impromptu."

The decision came after much buzz surrounding the multiple occurrences of curse words spoken on air by celebrities that reached millions of viewers during the 2002 and, then again, on the 2003 Billboard Music Awards shows. Celebrities Cher and Nicole Richie took it upon themselves to insert certain expletives into their speeches.

So, now the "industry," supported by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court, is saying they should be allowed, without penalty, to be as impulsive as they want in regard to profanity! In doing so, not only have celebrities shown very little self-discipline and respect, but also absolutely NO respect for the families and children listening to them.

Network culpability
Not all of the onus belongs on the celebrities.

The networks could use "time delay" on such shows—which some do for this very reason. After all, the networks agree to the Federal Communications Commission guidelines when they applied for—and received—licenses to broadcast on public broadcasting channels. But now the networks, and celebrities are displaying what parents would call a genuine tantrum over the fact that they want to say the f-word, or any other thing that suits their fancy. 

The action comes even after we thought justice was served in March 2006, when the FCC ruled that so-called "fleeting" uses of expletives are indecent.

The FOX network sued, along with NBC and CBS, for the right to curse on TV. That brings us to this June when New York Circuit Court judges overturned the FCC's decision. The judges claimed that the FCC's efforts on broadcast indecency were "arbitrary and capricious."

Arbitrary and capricious?

Sounds more like a description of the network broadcasters who, after the 2004 Janet Jackson Super Bowl, apologized left and right for the "accidental" nudity, but then sued saying it wasn't indecent. That case is still pending. 

Wait until these out-of-touch federal judges get a hold of that one.

So now, at any given time of the night, and even throughout the day, the public must have earmuffs close by for children, and their finger hovering over the mute button.

Meanwhile, society cedes yet more territory to the classless who—if the networks are to be believed—can't possibly be expected to come up with language that could be printed in this paper. 

We need to stand up now or accept a future where the celebrity and network voice is the only voice of reason left.

MacNeal is the director of the Los Angeles/LA/Foothills Chapter of PTC of the Parents Television Council. For more information, visit

Published, August 2007