Seventeen years ago, it took major cojones for Tom Fontana and his St. Elsewhere cowriters to ask NBC’s permission to use the word testicles in an episode of the hospital drama (they also pleaded for an okay on balls). NBC’s response was No — even to the euphemism — making the episode (about testicular cancer) nearly impossible to pull off. ”What is the doctor going to do — nod toward the guy’s genitals?” Fontana recalls wondering. ”They were so terrified we would lose sponsors and get letters. They were really hysterical.”
Finally, when one of the producers pointed out that the network had recently given the show a green light to say breasts during a mastectomy plotline, NBC brass relented, and the T-word was allowed to air twice — although balls was completely verboten. As a result, viewers got something they had never heard before on prime-time television: a reference to sexual organs.
Today, they’d be hard-pressed to avoid one. According to a new survey released March 30 from the Parents Television Council, allusions to genitalia were more than seven times as frequent in 1999 than they were 10 years ago. The use of the words d— and a–hole — which were out of the question for, say, a 1989 episode of Roseanne — are now as common as Regis in prime time. And to paraphrase that popular T-shirt slogan, even s— happens on network TV (Mark Harmon’s character on CBS’ Chicago Hope used the expletive earlier this season). Then there’s this final turn of the screw: The folks behind Dawson’s Creek allowed the unthinkable to happen — the use of the F-word, or at least a dangerously close version of it. In The WB drama’s Oct. 13 episode, Henry (Michael Pitt) repeatedly chanted ”fug” as a way to psyche himself up for a particular football play.
While this has naturally provoked outrage among conservatives like the watchdog group PTC, even these smut police admit it’s now unrealistic to expect TV to return to the days of Andy Griffith. But that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped sounding the alarms: ”One of the things we notice around the country is just how little parents know what’s on TV,” says PTC chairman Brent Bozell. ”They don’t know how much has changed. We hope this study will…serve as a wake-up call for parents.”
Many network producers think that pushing the envelope is the only way the broadcast nets can compete with the growing threat of original cable programming like The Sopranos. And although Dr. Rosalyn Weinman, NBC’s executive vice president of broadcast content policy and East Coast entertainment, hears this argument often, she’s not buying it. ”The audience still draws a distinction between network and cable,” Weinman maintains. ”They may demand uncut features on HBO, but the same exact proportion do expect cuts on the over-the-airwaves medium.”
For what it’s worth, Dawson’s exec producer Paul Stupin regrets that ”fug” business. ”In that particular instance, it was more for the humor, and frankly we might have gone a little too far,” he says. But other producers maintain that spicing up the language helps flesh out characters. Fontana, for example, slipped the word balls into the premiere episode of UPN’s edgy cop show The Beat; the WB sitcom Brutally Normal managed to broadcast the word p—- a few times before it was yanked (it may return for a summer run); and on March 28, NYPD Blue‘s Andy Sipowicz had this colorful take on a fellow cop who needed to shed pounds: ”[It’s] time people start thinking about losing weight…when their bellies stick out farther than their d—y-doo.”