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The Blue Tube: Foul Language on Prime Time Network TV
A PTC State of the Television Industry Report 


I.  Introduction: Why Civility on TV is Important

This is the second of the Parents Television Council's planned series of three reports looking at the state of the television industry.  The purpose of this report is to examine whether foul language on TV has gotten qualitatively and quantitatively worse or better.

The connection between media violence and real life violence has been well documented.  The consensus of the scientific and mental health communities is that children are profoundly influenced by the violent images they see on television and in films.  Constant exposure to media violence can result in aggressive, anti-social behavior, and even violent outbursts.

Mounting evidence also points to the fact that highly sexualized images on television can shape teens' attitudes towards sex.  Teenaged girls who watch a lot of sex on TV tend to have more sex partners.  Young women who watch as little as 22 hours a month of prime time TV are more likely to endorse a "recreational" view of sex than young women who watch less TV[1]Teens who watch sexy TV shows tend to engage in sexual behaviors more frequently than teens who watch less sex on TV. Children who are exposed to sexual material in media become sexually active earlier in life, putting them at higher risk for STDs and pregnancy.

In the face of such overwhelming evidence and such potentially disastrous effects, it's easy to make a case for why we should be concerned about the media's influence in these areas of a young person's life.  But what about other areas of life?

Recently 24 state Attorneys General sent a letter to Jack Valenti, the President of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) urging him to persuade the industry to try to cut back on cigarette smoking in movies in an effort to reduce the appeal of cigarettes to teenagers.  Underlying this letter is recognition of the fact that teenagers especially often imitate the behavior of their favorite TV and movie stars. 

The letter cited a study conducted at Dartmouth Medical School that suggests that non-smoking children are influenced by screen idols seen smoking in films.  The study concluded, "If the link between exposure to smoking in movies and smoking initiation proves to be causal, our data suggest that eliminating adolescents' exposure to movie smoking could reduce smoking initiation by half.[2]"

Given this growing recognition that all areas of a teenager's life can be influenced by behavior they see modeled on the screens large or small, it should be obvious that the way characters talk on TV can affect the way teens communicate in day-to-day life.  If a child watching a favorite star smoking in the movies is more likely to pick up a cigarette, it isn't much of a leap to conclude that same child might also be more inclined to spew expletives if they see their favorite actors doing it on TV.

Television carries the imprimatur of acceptability for all kinds of activities.  Indeed, according to popular culture expert and Syracuse University professor Robert Thompson, "Once prime-time television decides to absorb something, it becomes a stamp of normalcy.  It's no longer controversial.  It's no longer a big deal.  It makes it a casual, accepted sort of thing.[3]"

According to Geoffrey Hughes, author of Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English, "The influence of Hollywood has become a dominant factor [in the shift in attitudes towards swearing], initially for restraint, but subsequently for license.[4]"

We've seen the pattern time and time again.  Once the initial taboo is broken and the shock value wears off, more and more curse words fall into the category of "acceptable" language, and TV must try to up the ante by introducing new words to prime time TV's obscene lexicon[5]

But so what if language standards are being pushed into the gutter on TV?  Is there really any evidence that foul-language harms society?  With so many other dangerous influences bombarding children, should parents really be concerned if their teen swears? 

A 1996 U.S. News and World Report survey found that 88% of Americans thought incivility was a serious problem.  When asked about the consequences of this decline in civility, respondents cited an increase in violence, divided communities, and eroding moral values[6]

One reason given for the decline in civility is the prevalence of foul language.  P. M. Forni, co-founder of the Civility Project at Johns Hopkins University says that cursing is "Still the language of aggression… the precursor to violence."  He notes, "Very often, rudeness and cursing are the beginning of an escalation toward violence.  Words, our words, are like our hands.  They can soothe and heal, but they can also strike, which means they can hurt.[7]"

A recent survey published by American Demographics indicates that 72% of men and 55% of women admit to swearing in public.  The phenomenon of swearing in public seems to be more wide-spread among younger generations: 74% of 18-34 year-olds admitted to swearing in public versus 48% of respondents 55 years-of-age and older[8].  Meanwhile, studies confirm that schoolchildren are swearing more than ever before[9].

But the fact that such language seems to have become more widespread doesn't mean it's more socially acceptable.  What's more important, it doesn't make it more legally acceptable. 

In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in FCC v Pacifica Foundation that of all forms of communication, broadcasting has the most limited First Amendment protection.  "Among the reasons for specially treating indecent broadcasting is the uniquely pervasive presence that medium of expression occupies in the lives of our people.  Broadcasts extend into the privacy of the home, and it is impossible completely to avoid those that are patently offensive.  Broadcasting, moreover, is uniquely accessible to children…even to those too young to read."  The court further held that "The government's interest in the ‘well-being of its youth' and in supporting ‘parents' claim to authority in their own household' justified the regulation of otherwise protected expression."

Obscene speech is not granted First Amendment protection – period.  Beyond that, the FCC has the authority to sanction TV and radio stations that engage in obscene, indecent, or profane broadcasting, and that authority has been upheld by the Supreme Court. 

So where does that leave us today?  Has foul language on TV gotten worse or better over time?  Has there been a quantitative change?  A qualitative change?  Does the enforcement mechanism of the FCC deter broadcasters from "pushing the envelope" of foul language on TV?  These are the questions the PTC sought to answer in this, our second report on the State of the Television Industry.

 

II. Study Parameters and Methodology

PTC analysts examined all prime time entertainment series on the major broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN and the WB) from the first two weeks of the 1998, 2000, and 2002 November sweeps periods.  ITV was not included in this analysis because the network was launched just a few months before the first study period and had limited original programming in 1998 and 2000.  A total of 400 program hours were analyzed.

Television broadcasts of movies, news, and sports programs were not included in this analysis. 

PTC analysts reviewed the programs for all instances of foul language, including curses or intensives ("hell" and "damn"); offensive epithets ("bitch," "bastard," and "son of a bitch"); scatological language ("ass" or "asshole," "crap," and "piss"); sexually suggestive or indecent language ("suck," "screw," and euphemisms for "fuck"); and censored language (generally bleeped forms of "shit" or "fuck").

 

III. Statistical Overview

Quantitative Results

Overall

  • Foul language increased overall during every timeslot between 1998 and 2002.  Foul language during the Family Hour increased by 94.8% between 1998 and 2002 and by 109.1% during the 9:00 p.m. ET/PT time slot. Ironically, the smallest increase (38.7%) occurred during the last hour of prime time – the hour when young children are least likely to be in the viewing audience.  

ABC

  • Overall, offensive language on ABC decreased by 17% between 1998 and 2002.  

  • The amount of foul language on ABC during the second hour of prime time (9:00-10:00 p.m. ET/PT) has decreased steadily since 1998.  From 1998-2000, ABC reduced the quantity of foul language by 18%.  Between 2000 and 2002, foul language decreased an additional 41%.  Overall, there was a 52% drop in the frequency of foul language during that time period between 1998 and 2002.

  • The same holds true for the third hour of prime time (10:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT).  From 1998 to 2000, ABC experienced a 30% drop in the frequency of foul language.  From 2000-2002, foul language decreased an additional 10%.  Overall, there has been a 22% drop in the frequency of foul language during that time period between 1998 and 2002.

  • Unfortunately, foul language during the Family Hour increased from 1998 to 2002 by 61.7%.

CBS

  • CBS only showed improvement during the 10-11:00 p.m. time slot, reducing the volume of foul language by 22.5% between 1998 and 2002.  Such content was reduced by 67% since 2000 alone. 

  • Foul language on CBS was much more frequent, however, during the first two hours of prime time.  Foul language during the Family Hour on CBS has increased from a per hour rate of 1.29 in 1998 to 7.37 in 2002 -- an astounding increase of 471.3%.

  • CBS fared no better during the second hour of prime time, going from a per hour rate of 3.20 in 1998 to 6.60 in 2002, an increase of 106.2%.

Fox

  • Although foul language during Fox's Family Hour actually decreased by 25% between 1998 and 2002, going from a per hour rate of 7.44 to 5.58; Fox was still responsible for more than 21% of all the foul language heard during the Family Hour in 2002.

  • That improvement was offset by a spike in foul language during the second hour of prime time, where foul language became 75.3% more frequent from 1998 to 2002.

NBC

  • Foul language on NBC went up across the board, in every study period and every time slot.

  • During the Family Hour, foul language increased by 114.7% from 1998 to 2002, going from a per hour rate of 3.82 to 8.2 in just four years.

  • During the second hour of prime time, foul language increased by 59.4%, from 4.95 instances per hour to 7.89 instances per hour.

  • During the third hour of prime time, foul language on NBC increased by 174%, from 4.38 instances per hour in 1998 to 12 instances per hour in 2002.

UPN

  • During the Family Hour, foul language increased by 104.7% between 1998 and 2002.

  • During the second hour of prime time, foul language increased a staggering 538%, from a modest 1.63 instances per hour in 1998, to 10.4 instances per hour in 2002.

WB

  • Foul language increased during the WB's Family Hour by 188% between 1998 and 2002.

  • Foul language during the second hour of prime time is up on the WB by 308.5% since 1998, from a mere 2 instances per hour to over 10 per hour.

  

Qualitative Results

For the qualitative analysis, foul language has been divided into five general categories: curses, oaths, or intensives ("hell" and "damn"); offensive epithets ("bitch," "bastard," and "son of a bitch"); scatological language ("ass" or "asshole," "crap," and "piss"); sexually suggestive or indecent language ("suck," "screw," and euphemisms for "fuck"); and censored language (generally bleeped forms of "shit" or "fuck").

Overall

  • The good news is that there were some minor qualitative improvements.  That is, in every time slot, mild oaths and curses comprised a larger share of the foul language in 2002 than in 1998, which means that harsher terms (scatological and sexually indecent language, for example) became marginally less prominent.

ABC

  • Not only was there a quantitative increase in foul language during the Family Hour on ABC, but the language heard on the network became coarser between 1998 and 2002.  Fewer of the expletives heard on ABC's Family Hour fell into the less offensive category of oaths and intensives.  In 1998, 67% of all the foul language heard on ABC's Family Hour was either "hell" or "damn."  By 2002, only 52% of the foul language on ABC's Family Hour consisted of those terms, meanwhile, there was a 15% increase in scatological language (including ass, crap, and piss), and a 5% increase in offensive epithets like "bitch," "bastard," and "son of a bitch."

  • Qualitatively, ABC was all over the place during the 9:00 hour.  While there was a 16% drop in scatological language during that time slot between 1998 and 2002, there was a negligible difference in the frequency of sexually indecent language (down 1%).  Meanwhile, there was a 15% increase in offensive epithets during the same period. 

CBS

  • CBS made several qualitative improvements during the Family Hour.  Scatological language was 13% less frequent in 2002 than in 1998; offensive epithets were also 13% less frequent.  The comparatively mild intensives "hell" and "damn" became 24% more frequent during that period.

  • The language became a bit coarser on CBS during the second hour of prime time, where there was a 10% increase in scatological language, and a moderate 5% increase in sexually indecent language. 

Fox

  • Although Fox exhibited a quantitative improvement between 1998 and 2002 during the Family Hour; qualitatively, the picture is a little murkier.  Fox's Family Hour programming featured 17% more scatological language, but 12% fewer offensive epithets. 

  • Although Fox exhibited a quantitative improvement between 1998 and 2002 during the Family Hour; qualitatively, the picture is a little murkier.  Fox's Family Hour programming featured 17% more scatological language, but 12% fewer offensive epithets. 

  • During the second hour of prime time, Fox featured 16% more scatological language in 2002 than in 1998, but 7% fewer offensive epithets.

NBC

  • NBC made minor qualitative improvements during the Family Hour, with 10% less sexually indecent language, and 5% fewer offensive epithets in 2002 than in 1998.

  • NBC made minor qualitative improvements during the Family Hour, with 10% less sexually indecent language, and 5% fewer offensive epithets in 2002 than in 1998.

  • NBC also made minor qualitative improvements between 1998 and 2002 during the second hour of prime time, with 7% less scatological language, 9% less sexually indecent language, and 4% fewer offensive epithets.  These reductions were offset by a 20% increase in intensives ("hell" and "damn").

  • There were no clear qualitative improvements in terms of language during the third hour of prime time on NBC.  While scatological language was down 4% between 1998 and 2002 and offensive epithets were down by 15% for the same period; there was a 6% increase in sexually indecent language.

UPN

  • UPN made no clear qualitative improvements during the Family Hour.  Although scatological language was down by 23% between 1998 and 2002, and offensive epithets were 15% less frequent; sexually indecent language was 19% more common in 2002 than in 1998.

  • There were no clear qualitative improvements during the second hour of prime time on UPN either.  Scatological language increased by a moderate 4% between 1998 and 2002, and offensive epithets were 12% more frequent in 2002 than in 1998; but sexually indecent language fell off by 30% in the same period.

WB

  • The WB also made no clear qualitative improvements during the Family Hour.  Offensive epithets decreased by 20% during the Family Hour from 1998 to 2002, but sexually indecent language increased by 16% during the same period, while scatological language  increased by a moderate 5%.

  • The WB experienced very little qualitative change during the second hour of prime time for the same period.  Scatological language increased by 11%, sexually indecent language fell by a mere 3%, offensive epithets increased by 4%.

 

IV. Examples

1998

Examples from 8-9:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Clueless -- 11/17/98 8:30 p.m. UPN

Mel: "I think there has been a misunderstanding."

Bev: "You're damn right there has. I was replying to the personal ad of a gentleman, not some perv who will do it with anything on two legs. Oh, I'm excluding amputees, dolphins and snakes. Go to hell Mel." 

Brimstone -- 11/13/98 8:00 p.m. FOX

Homeless Man: "No skin off my ass."

Shelter Worker: "Get that son of a bitch."

Friends -- 11/5/98 8:00 p.m. NBC

Ross: "Look! Ugly naked guy is back."

Phoebe: "I miss that fat bastard."

Examples from 9-10:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Becker -- 11/9/98 9:30 p.m. CBS

Mr. Marino: "Why don't you go straight to hell, take a left at up-yours and make a right at kiss my ass!"

Felicity -- 11/10/98 9:00 p.m. WB

Elena: "Are you guys screwing?"

Felicity: "Elena! Sorry, she's like that."

(later) Felicity: "Are Ben and I screwing? No. Talking? No."

The Drew Carey Show -- 11/11/98 9:00 p.m. ABC

Drew: "The day you kiss my ass and I fall for it, is the day I put your name on that list.  And the day I have my ass removed."

Examples from 10-11:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Chicago Hope -- 11/11/98 10:00 p.m. CBS

After Gordon lands the plane Dr. Austin gets very upset:

Dr. Austin: "Son of a bitch, you stupid, arrogant son of a bitch! You can just take all that stupid macho crap and just... (voice is drowned out by a helicopter)."

NYPD Blue -- 11/10/98 10:00 p.m. ABC

A conversation between a man and Detective Andy Sipowicz:

Man: "These two assholes arguing all night?"

Andy: "That bitch, Trish… You want to press charges against this asshole."

Law & Order -- 11/4/98 10:00 p.m. NBC

Woman: "Catherine finally gets it together to leave that son of a bitch and Jack McKinney makes her sound like a slut?"

2000

Examples from 8-9:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Friends -- 11/9/00 8:00 p.m. NBC

Chandler: "I want to get out of here before Joey gets all worked-up and starts calling everybody 'bitch.'"

Joey: "What are you talking about, bitch?"

Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- 11/14/00 8:00 p.m. WB

Harmony to Spike: "And then you'll get bitch-slapped up and down Main Street, unless she's had enough and just stakes you."

Examples from 9-10:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

West Wing -- 11/15/00 9:00 p.m. NBC

Bartlett: "You didn't say Michigan sucks?"

Leo: "No sir."

Bartlett: "I thought you said Michigan sucks."

Leo: "It might have been the engines that made it sound like I said Notre Dame is going to get the ass-kicking they so richly deserve."

The Drew Carey Show -- 11/8/00 9:00 p.m. ABC

Lewis: "Looks like you got a real bastard on your hands."

Oswald: "How does it feel to the meat in a bastard sandwich, huh, huh?"

Examples from 10-11:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

The Practice -- 11/15/00 10:00 p.m. ABC

Mrs. Tomlinson: "You are the closest I've had to a GP doctor since the one that slapped my ass and cut the cord."

Law & Order -- 11/8/00 10:00 p.m. NBC

Victim: "Son of a bitch stabbed me...son of a bitch."

2002

Examples from 8-9:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Monk -- 11/11/02 8:00 p.m. ABC

Monk and Stottlemeyer see the streaker again as they observe Mrs. Mass in the park.

Stottlemeyer: "Son of a bitch, he's back."

Ed -- 11/13/02 8:00 p.m. NBC

Warren (speaking of a song): "Her...sexploits."

Molly: "I don't think Miss Vessy would like you putting her sexploits to song."

Warren: "Pretty soon the peso's going to be kicking our ass."

Examples from 9-10:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

Frasier -- 11/12/02 9:00 p.m. NBC

Martin: "What the hell are you trying to do, kill her? No wonder she's mad, you ungrateful son of a bitch."

Fastlane -- 11/13/02 9:00 p.m. FOX

Van: "You're a bitch."

Billie: "This gold means you're my bitch!"

Examples from 10-11:00 p.m. ET/PT Time Slot

NYPD Blue -- 11/12/02 10:00 p.m. ABC

Jill: You guys really suck! ...So a girl wears boots and a miniskirt, and she's automatically a whore? ...You guys really suck! I guess all guys that wear short-sleeved shirts and ties are assholes.

Law & Order -- 11/13/02 10:00 p.m. NBC

Man: "You'd be a horse's ass not to. Since the first Mrs. Rosotti screwed around on him...He said, ‘That slut won't get a penny from me.'"

 

V. Conclusion and Recommendations

The findings of this study point to one obvious conclusion: the broadcast networks have made little or no effort to curb foul language during the prime time hours in the last five years.  While there were qualitative minor improvements here and there, overwhelmingly foul language became coarser and more frequent over time across the broadcast networks, and unless checked, we can surely expect this trend to continue well into the future.

There are those, of course, who will say that anyone who suggests Hollywood should try reducing or eliminating profane, indecent, and obscene language from prime time broadcast television, is advocating censorship. 

Beyond being overly simplistic and disingenuous, such arguments overlook an important fact: there are already laws on the books that restrict -- and in some cases prohibit -- indecent and obscene material from broadcast media.  The Supreme Court has affirmed the authority of the FCC to enforce those rules. 

The fact that with each passing year, standards for permissible language on TV slip a little further does not mean that those laws no longer apply.  It is a testament to the failure of the FCC to do its job to adequately enforce laws prohibiting broadcast indecency. 

Thirty years ago it would have been unthinkable for a broadcast network to allow the "f-word" to go out over the broadcast airwaves unedited at any time of day, let alone during the Family Hour.  This past January, pop-star Bono used the word during a live Family Hour broadcast of the Golden Globes Awards on NBC, and the network's standards and practices department did nothing to edit it out.  They claimed it was an accident. The FCC received thousands of complaints from the public about the broadcast, but to date, the FCC has taken no action against NBC or any of its affiliates for allowing this obscenity to be broadcast.

It's not difficult to imagine that, absent a challenge from the FCC, the next time that word is heard on broadcast television, it will not be by accident.  How long then, before it becomes commonplace?  The UK-based Mediawatch found that the "f-word" was used over 1,500 times in films airing on Britain's five terrestrial television channels in the first half of this year. Is this really what we want for American broadcast television?

It's easy to be dismissive of foul language on TV, but it does have an impact.  Ultimately, the entertainment industry needs to get serious about reducing the flood of vulgarity coming into the family home over the broadcast airwaves.  Barring that, the FCC needs to get serious about enforcing broadcast decency laws and punishing broadcasters that violate those laws.


[1]Wetzstein, Cheryl. "TV teaches college students casual sex is OK, study finds." The Washington Times. 13 September, 1999: A8.  

[2] "Smoking No Longer Glamorous." Zap2it.com 27 August, 2003. 

[3] Hutchins, Chris. "I Swear!; Can You Believe How These Grown-Ups Talk?; @#$% This; &*(@ That!"  Palm Beach Post  25 Feb. 2000, Pg. 1E.

[4] Hughes, Geoffrey. Swearing: A Social History of Foul Language, Oaths and Profanity in English.  London: Penguin Books, 1998.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lee, Chris.  "Mean Streets and Rude Workplaces: The Death of Civility."  Training.  No. 7, Vol. 36 (1999).  

[7] Kadaba, Lini.  "Some Cry Foul, Others ‘Bleep On.'" Orlando Sentinel.  31 May, 2000, Pg. E1.

[8] Fetto, John.  "Naughty and Nice?"  American Demographics.  1 July, 2003: Pg. 6.

[9] Hutchins


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