< Fleeting Expletives

Transcript

Friday, June 27, 2008

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
From WNYC in New York, this is NPR's On the Media.
[BEEP]
WOMAN:
A word for excretion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Bob Garfield is away this week. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
[BEEP]
WOMAN:
For urination.
[BEEP]
For having sex.
[BEEP]
For breasts.
[BEEPS]
And three words still so radioactive we can't even describe them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Comedian George Carlin died last Sunday, not exactly breaking news by now, but we couldn't resist the urge to talk about those words we're not supposed to talk about, what the Federal Communications Commission calls indecency, the ones Carlin mentioned in his now-infamous standup act from the 1970s, which became the subject of a Supreme Court case after a New York City radio station played the routine, uncensored, live over the air, at two o'clock in the afternoon.

In FCC vs. Pacifica, the Court ruled against the radio station, stating that broadcast media have, quote, "limited First Amendment protection," in part because they are, quote, "uniquely accessible to children."

Glenn Garvin is TV critic for The Miami Herald. He says that, broadcast or not, TV today is littered with the words that Carlin said you can't say on TV.
GLENN GARVIN:
The show Deadwood on HBO used the F word so often that a website actually began counting them and working out what it called the FPM.
[BROOKE LAUGHS]
That's F words per minute. In over three seasons it averaged 1.56 F words per minute, which is a pretty impressive total, really.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] Of course, now it doesn't even take a subscription to cable TV to hear at least some of the words from Carlin's routine. I've noticed them popping up on broadcast channels now and again.
GLENN GARVIN:
They've done so rather infamously the last few years, particularly from the mouths of Hollywood celebrities sort of commandeering the airwaves during award shows and things like that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Right. We have the Bono example.
[CLIP]
BONO:
That's really, really [BLEEP]‘in brilliant. And -
[LAUGHTER]
- really, really great.
[LAUGHTER]
GLENN GARVIN:
The FCC got complaints over Bono's use of the F word, which they very curiously decided was not something they could penalize because he used the word as an adverb -
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS]
GLENN GARVIN:
- rather than as a noun or a verb.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] And then there was that other example on The Today Show.
GLENN GARVIN:
[LAUGHING] Even a jaded old TV critic like myself was somewhat startled when Jane Fonda, discussing her appearance in a play called The Vagina Monologues, used another word for vagina that starts with a “c”.
[CLIP]
JANE FONDA:
Well, it wasn't that I wasn't a big fan. I hadn't seen the play. I live in Georgia, okay? I was asked to do a monologue called [BLEEP], and I said, I don't think so, I’ve got enough problems.
[END CLIP]
GLENN GARVIN:
Twenty, twenty-five years ago, the sky would have fallen. The network would have been burned to the ground probably. Instead, they just apologized, and so far, at least, that's been the end of it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
It's happened from time to time since the dawn of broadcasting, and yet there seems to be a renewed interest by the FCC in cracking down on these violations. Is it because there are more complaints?
GLENN GARVIN:
There were 14,000 complaints to the FCC in 2002. In 2003 it was up to 170,000. And the FCC is now so far behind on logging these complaints that we only have statistics available through the first half of 2006, but for just the first six months of 2006, more than 327,000 complaints. So, not everybody is cool with this, by any means.

I think that the Parents Television Council, which has truly made it easy for its members to lodge complaints through its website, the reason they exist is that there are a lot of people truly offended by this, who don't like it. They've got over a million members.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Fair enough. You pointed out that George Carlin often referred to himself as a “footnote in American legal history.”
GLENN GARVIN:
I think Carlin would be highly amused that in his death he's so often remembered for this one [LAUGHS] little routine.
[CLIP]
GEORGE CARLIN:
There are 400,000 words in the English language and there are seven of ‘em you can't say on television. What a ratio that is - 399,993 to 7.
[LAUGHTER]
They must really be bad.
[LAUGHTER]
They'd have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you seven -
[LAUGHTER]
- bad words!
[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
No bad words - bad thoughts, bad intentions, and words.

You know the seven, don't you, that you can't say on television? [BLEEP], [BLEEP], [BLEEP], [BLEEP], [BLEEP], [BLEEP], [BLEEP]. Huh?
[LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE]
[END CLIP]
GLENN GARVIN:
I think, frankly, America's all mixed up about this. I don't think Americans know what they want. I don't doubt that people are really ticked off. You know, Gallup and these organizations do polls all the time, and they show repeatedly that a solid majority of Americans think there's too much sex and too much violence and too much swearing on television.

Then you turn around and you look at the Nielsen ratings, and more people than ever are watching television. And, what's more, increasingly they prefer cable television, where the sex and the violence and the dirty words are far more than they are on broadcast. And I don't think we've made up our minds quite yet which direction we're going to go on this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Glenn Garvin is the TV critic for The Miami Herald. Glenn, thank you very much.
GLENN GARVIN:
Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
If America can't make up its mind, well neither can the courts. Historically, the FCC has allowed what are called "fleeting expletives," that is, off-the-cuff profanity on live TV to pass without fines.

But a November 2006 ruling changed that. The utterances in question occurred during successive broadcasts of The Billboard Music Awards on Fox. In the first instance, Cher, after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, said this.
[CLIP]
CHER:
I've also had critics for the last 40 years saying that I was on my way out every year.
[AUDIENCE REACTION]
Right. So [BLEEP] ‘em.
[LAUGHTER]
[END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
The following year, Nicole Richie also used the F word, and the FCC deemed Fox guilty of indecency. In June 2007, in Fox Television Stations Inc. vs. the FCC, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that the FCC acted "arbitrarily and capriciously" in deciding which fleeting expletives were indecent and that the Commission, quote, "failed to articulate a reasoned basis for its change in policy." In other words, there was no historical precedent for fining fleeting expletives, so why now?

The Supreme Court will hear that case later this fall. Until then, the battle rages on. As TV critic Glenn Garvin just mentioned, the Parents Television Council, or PTC, is one of the most influential anti-indecency groups in the country.

We spoke with PTC president Tim Winter shortly after the Second Court ruled against the FCC and in favor of the networks on the issue of fleeting expletives.
TIM WINTER:
When you hear an expletive aired on an award show and then again the next year, the same award show, a different celebrity utters the same word, at some point in time this no longer becomes fleeting; it becomes a pattern.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
A pattern that, according to Winter, the networks don't mind.
TIM WINTER:
I think the networks not only didn't discourage their celebrities from doing that, I think there's some sort of tacit encouragement, that they want the stars to be edgy because they are looking for young teen audiences that the advertisers want most.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
The PTC's motto is "Because our children are watching." And Winters means it because, in fact, he's watching his child watching.
TIM WINTER:
As a father of a nine-year-old daughter, it became abundantly apparent to me several years ago just how impactful the media was on small children, regardless of how diligent a parent is at protecting what their children are watching.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
For Tim Winter, a Supreme Court decision against a primetime expletive would benefit society at large.

Not so for NYPD Blue creator Steven Bochco. Bochco has made his career creating gritty dramas that employ expletives and even the occasional butt cheek in prime time.
STEVEN BOCHCO:
Obviously we conceptualized NYPD Blue to be a show that pushed at the bindings because in the early 1990s the hour drama was kind of moribund on broadcast television, and cable was just having us for lunch. So, in broad strokes, the mandate for NYPD Blue was to mature the medium somewhat.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And, says Bochco, when you're creating a program about New York City police, the occasion use of an expletive is part of the artistic process.

STEVEN BOCHCO:
I never needed to show anybody's ass. I never needed to show anybody's breasts. I never needed to use the word ass-[BLEEP]. Those were creative choices. And I regret all kinds of things I've done, but I've never regretted them conceptually. I usually regret them simply because, for one reason or another, the execution wasn't good enough. You know, did we contextualize the moment sufficiently to make it appropriate?
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Context is key to avoiding an FCC reprimand. We spoke with FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein in 2005 and 2006. He explained why Bono's use of the F word during The Golden Globe Award was indecent, while expletives littered through the film Saving Private Ryan, aired on broadcast TV, were not.
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN:
In the case of the Bono incident, it was gratuitous. It was during an awards show when parents would not be apprised that that kind of language would be used. In the case of Saving Private Ryan there was many different disclosures done in advance.

Even Senator John McCain went on television before the movie was aired to say that parents may want to be careful about the kind of language that's being used here. This kind of language is a part of the very fabric of war, and so to change that would change the nature of the film.

We found that, in that context, that certainly use of the language was not indecent. And I'm really disappointed, frankly, that a lot of stations decided not to air it, and I'm concerned that we may be having something of a chilling effect on speech, and we need to avoid that in every way possible.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But how can you avoid that, he told us, when the FCC has no consistent criteria for judging what is indecent?
JONATHAN ADELSTEIN:
If you look at the so-called Golden Globes case, where Bono used the F word with regard to an award that he got, it wasn't certainly sexual in nature but we found that it may have been.

And once you go down that path, all of a sudden you have the whole vocabulary in front of you, and you need to make these determinations. And, in fact, I can see why broadcasters would be somewhat confused about what is and what isn't permissible.

I mean, I think we need to be very careful about how we draw the line here, because the Supreme Court gave us a real short leash on which to determine what is and isn't indecent. If we overstep in these cases and the Court knocks us down, we could potentially lose what limited authority we have to protect children from indecent material forever. It would actually take a constitutional amendment amending the First Amendment to be able to get the FCC authority back to limit material that we could all agree would be inappropriate for children.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
All who? When the Supreme Court ruled against Pacifica Radio in the Carlin case, Justice William Brennan raised exactly that question in his dissent. Quote, "As surprising as it may be to individual members of this court, some parents may actually find Mr. Carlin's unabashed attitude toward the "Seven Dirty Words" healthy and deem it desirable to expose their children to the manner in which Mr. Carlin diffuses the taboo surrounding the words.

Such parents may constitute a minority of the American public, but the absence of great numbers willing to exercise the right to raise their children in this fashion does not alter the right's nature or its existence. Only the Court's regrettable decision does that."
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