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Four TV execs come clean about on-air decency rules

Swearing! Nudity! Violence! In a rare interview, four standards and practices pros come clean about on-air decency rules, including where they draw the line and the frustrations of dealing with the FCC

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Kelsey McNeal

They pore over every sitcom script, flagging lewd jokes and errant curse words. They police every live event, tightly gripping bleep buttons in anticipation of an F-bomb. They make agonizing decisions about just how much bare butt cheek is too much. They’re standards-and-practices executives, the powerful people charged with keeping their networks clean. And they almost never discuss what they do.

Until now, that is. We’ve assembled a quartet of S&P execs from four out of the five broadcast networks, who offer an unusually candid look at their secretive work. Why are they opening up? Partly out of growing frustration with the Federal Communications Commission, which polices TV broadcasts and can impose warnings and fines for decency violations — and, according to our panelists, is increasingly vague about its rules. ”The arbitrariness, the lack of clarity is creating a chilling effect,” says one. And the stakes are only getting higher: Some senators have called for a crackdown on violent images in the media following the Virginia Tech shootings, and the FCC just released a long-awaited report on TV violence that could result in new restrictions on shows like CSI and 24. Speaking not for attribution, these four executives with nearly 60 years of experience between them talk about their high-pressure jobs, what naughty words and images you can (and can’t) use on TV, and what could happen to your favorite shows should the s— hit the fan in the wake of the new FCC report.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Just so we’re clear, what does standards and practices do?
EXECUTIVE 1 With the exception of sports and news, we look at what’s acceptable with respect to our brand, as well as make certain that the [entertainment] content is compliant with FCC regulations.
EXECUTIVE 2 A large part of what standards does is making sure that parents know whether a show is appropriate for their children.
EXECUTIVE 3 We are also there for advertisers who can come in knowing they won’t be butted up against content that is inappropriate and doesn’t reflect well on them.
EXECUTIVE 2 Our people do the delays on the live shows. If you’re a baseball player and you fail six out of 10 times at what you do, you go to the Hall of Fame. If you’re a standards editor on that button and you miss one time, there’s a potential for millions in fines. You have to be perfect.
EXECUTIVE 1 It is a high-pressure situation.

Generally speaking, what won’t you air?
EXECUTIVE 2 Frontal nudity would be indecent. We also don’t show a lot of rear nudity.
EXECUTIVE 1 We don’t do breasts or buttocks or side nudity.
EXECUTIVE 2 You can show [post-sex] cuddling, but no thrusting, going up and down under sheets.

What about language?
EXECUTIVE 2 There are George Carlin’s seven dirty words, and they automatically come out. The only time they tend to be an issue is on the live shows, and that’s why the [censorship] button is there.
EXECUTIVE 4 But there’s been a change over the years, because piss, for example, which was one of Carlin’s words, is used.
EXECUTIVE 1 Vaginal is not found to be indecent, but the context is still going to be key, so that you might still be found indecent for using the word vagina or vaginal. But balls is less offensive than testicles because balls could mean something else.
EXECUTIVE 2 One of the things we have to do, whether it’s by using ”You suck” or ”MILF,” is to evolve. Expressions or usages become popularized. I don’t think we want to be part of a coarsening of the culture, but I suspect even in Peoria, Illinois, there are words regularly used on playgrounds that we still don’t allow on our network.
EXECUTIVE 1 We have to keep a fairly young staff of people around to stay on top of those IM terms. We were looking at ratings recently and one of my staffers said, ”What were the numbers for the MILF group?” I didn’t know it meant ”mothers I’d like to f—.” Show runners will rightfully say, ”I’m saying, ‘She’s fugly.’ I’m not saying ‘f—.’ I’m not saying, ‘She’s f—ing ugly.”’ But we don’t allow fugly to air. I also didn’t know what a camel toe was. My staff looked at me and said, ”I cannot believe you do this job and don’t know what it is.” They also had to explain to me what a donkey show was [for the record, it’s…oh, look it up yourself ].

Are you surprised by what some producers try to include in a script?
EXECUTIVE 4 People might be surprised how much give-and-take there is. I’m working on a pilot, and we’re giving them two uses of the word dick as in jerk, as opposed to the genital reference.
EXECUTIVE 2 Show runners are very competitive people. If you’re a drama producer and you’re looking at The Sopranos, they say, ”That’s what I’m having to compete with for eyeballs.” Sometimes they need to be reminded that we’re over the air. Most of them are very good about it. You want to preserve creative freedom, but we also have to try and guess what the [FCC] is going to do. If you go back and look at the pilot of All in the Family, I’m not sure that in our risk-averse world…it would air today.

NEXT PAGE: ”No, [the FCC is] not clear. They’re absolutely arbitrary and capricious.”