Written by PTC | Published March 7, 2023
In his song “Anything Goes,” Cole Porter mused, “Good authors, too, who once knew better words now only use four-letter words writing prose… Anything Goes.” The same can be said for today’s TV writers, who now regularly deploy the “F-bomb” to replace most of the vocabulary more creative script writers once used.
Worse, these writers have no qualms about using it freely on programs they know children and teens are watching; nor, apparently, do they feel any moral obligation to apply a more-restrictive age-based rating on programs that make frequent use of such language.
Under the TV content ratings system, the use of a single “F-word” on basic cable and expanded-basic cable television programming has traditionally triggered a “TV-MA” content rating. On broadcast TV, a single “F-word” that airs could trigger an indecency fine. The Motion Picture Association of America allows only one "F-word” for a movie to keep the PG-13 rating. More than one, and the rating is changed to “R.”
Not so with Netflix or other streamers who, unfettered by restraints imposed by sponsors or the Federal Communications Commission, let the "F-words” fly with impunity. Netflix’s Stranger Things, which is rated TV-14, used the “F-word” nine times in the most recent season, which should have triggered a TV-MA rating.
This past week, Prime Video dropped the first three episodes of the highly anticipated music drama “Daisy Jones and the Six,” a mock-documentary about the rise and fall of a popular 1970s rock band. In the first three episodes, the “F-word” was used 52 times. Amazon rated it “16+,” indicating their target audience included older teens.
Although rated TV-MA, HBOMax’s teen-targeted drama “Euphoria” used the F-word an astonishing 714 times across eight episodes in season 2.
But there is zero evidence that audiences are looking for this kind of content. Quite the contrary. Even on programs rated TV-MA, viewers are growing weary of the non-stop “F-bombs.”
For two seasons, “Designated Survivor” aired on ABC where it was rated TV-14 and never once used the “F-word” in 43 episodes. The series was dropped by ABC and picked-up by Netflix, which produced a third and final season, rated TV-MA and liberally peppered with “F-words.” Viewers noticed, and were not happy with the change in the show’s tone:
#DesignatedSurvivor Season three, episode seven — why are they all swearing?— Alastair Owens (@AlastairHackney) July 3, 2019
Was loving #DesignatedSurvivor until season 3. What is up with all of the profanity and sex scenes? Yuck!— Kim Anderson (@Kim__Anderson) July 7, 2019
Watching Designated Survivor & while I still love the show I think Netflix is really doing a disservice by trying to make #DesignatedSurvivor something that it isn't. #Netflix is taking away many of the elements I love & adding things it feels the show needs, like all the cursing— Pepamint83 (@Pepamint83) July 7, 2019
But TV viewers have also noticed this pattern across other Netflix series and on other streaming platforms.
The Deseret News points out that six of the top 10 most popular shows on streaming “are rated TV-MA and include multiple uses of the F-word, including the cartoon ‘Rick and Morty.’ Another, the TV-14-rated ‘Cobra Kai,’ also has the occasional F-word.”
It may not have started with streaming media, but streaming media is pushing the “F-word” in a way that would have been inconceivable just five or ten years ago, and it is having a trickle-down effect on ad-supported cable and even broadcast TV.
John Landgraf, former president of the FX Cable network opined that the debate over language standards on television is a thing of the past: “We’ve used the F-word on air now multiple times in the last several years… So we’re on the verge of being, kind of, done with the debate or battle over language. It’s close anyway.”
Would any parent in 1990 or even 2000 expect to hear, “I think ‘f***’ is NBC-friendly now.”
There may be parents who think the genie is already out of the bottle, that their kids are hearing this language at school anyhow, and, after all, how much harm does it really do? But I would argue that part of the reason this language has become the norm in schools is because the media makes it seem normative.
There’s an age-old debate about whether media reflects the culture or if the culture is shaped by the media. Playwrite Bertolt Brecht said, “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” This is not just one artists’ conceit. It is a stated goal of many in the creative community, who openly boast about the power they wield to change social norms, mores, attitudes and beliefs.
Television carries the imprimatur of acceptability for all kinds of activities. 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.”
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.”
If we want to see more decency, civility and respect in our culture, cutting-back on streaming TV’s “F-bombs” would be a good place to start.