What do ”NYPD Blue” and ”Chicago Hope” have in common?
Jesus Christ! What the f— is with all this god—- profanity on television? According to a recent study of language on TV by the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the 1998-99 network TV season featured one instance of profanity every six minutes (Fox led the way with an average 20 offenses per hour, thanks in part to quickly canceled stinkers like ”Costello” — whose existence was profane in its own right -? and ”Living in Captivity”).
”Profanity,” by the way, was defined as any one of George Carlin’s infamous ”seven dirty words” plus a few he missed; in general (according to the study), ”language that was long considered objectionable in public settings.” And holy crap, was TV full of it: ”You crazy bastard!” on ”Nash Bridges”; ”Where’s my f—ing money, punk?” on ”Oz”; and even ”Dirty son of a bitch” on ”NYPD Blue.” Even worse, according to the CMPA, TV has made cursing cool. ”Overall,” reads the study, ”in movies and TV, good guys used profanity four times as often as bad guys, and the use of crude language was criticized only 3 percent of the time.”
Normally, I’m not one to get worked up about our country’s declining moral character. In general, I feel that standards of what’s ”acceptable” -? be it for language or dress or entertainment or manners ?- are so slippery and mercurial it’s pointless to fret over how today’s differ from those 20 years ago. Still, I find the continual increase in potty-mouthed TV shows a bit alarming. Already, the bleep barrier is breaking down on network TV (witness Mark Harmon uttering ”s— happens” on ”Chicago Hope”), so by this time next year, is anyone going to give a rat’s a– if ”f— you” pops up on, say, NBC after 10 p.m.?
The coarsening of TV language will continue, I think, until a show like ”Action” (which used censored cuss words to hilarious effect) would eventually be able to air sans bleeps and digital lip-fuzzing. Indeed, the time will come, I fear, when the only television taboos left will be actual sexual penetration and human executions. Maybe by the time everyone on TV is cursing like a sailor and strolling around sitcom living rooms naked, the social norm will be so relaxed that viewers won’t think much of it. But wouldn’t it be nice if in the new millennium, broadcast TV stood firm as the last swear-free zone?
I’m not saying everyone would have to watch ”sanitized for your protection” fare like ”Providence” and the Pax Network, nor do I think the grown-ups on TV should talk like kids, replacing ”damn” with ”dang” and ”good God” with ”golly gee.” But since those Seven Dirty Words follow us everywhere -? movies, the Internet, books, music ?- it might be comforting to be able to curl up with one entertainment outlet that didn’t douse us in profanity. So here’s a hopeful request to the suits at ABC, NBC, Fox, UPN, and the WB: How about making a New Year’s Resolution to ban bleepable words from your programming? For f—‘s sake, let’s just keep it clean, OK?