Earlier this month, the New York Times ran a front-page story about the erosion in prime-time television's language standards that's expected to occur during the upcoming season. We won't know exactly how serious that erosion will be until it happens, of course, but it's among the safest of bets that it will take place.
Early indications are that many, if not all, of George Carlin's infamous seven dirty words will soon be acceptable on prime-time broadcast television. Even more poignant: Television will begin taking the Lord's name in vain.
It was bound to happen, I suppose. For more than a decade the networks have grown increasingly permissive where cursing is concerned, and any close observer of television could tell you that when standards begin to slip, they just continue slipping, period. It's Newton's first law of motion filtered through a cathode-ray tube.
Currently, TV's leading coarse-language "innovators" appear to be veteran producer Steven Bochco, whose new project is the ABC drama "Philly," and Aaron Sorkin, mastermind of NBC's "The West Wing."
It's probable that Bochco's "NYPD Blue" has brought more vulgarisms into the prime-time vernacular than any other broadcast program. With "Philly," Bochco wanted to go where neither "Blue" nor any other ABC series has gone before, but the network vetoed his proposed use of "bulls-t."
"It's a pretty silly thing," he told the Times, "when you look at it in the context of a show like 'The Sopranos,' which people by the millions tune in to, to [lose] that argument with ABC broadcast standards." He might, however, still win the war: Reporter Jim Rutenberg notes that Bochco "said he would probably try to get the word [into] another episode."
CBS, by the way, allowed six uses of "bulls-t" last spring in its presentation of "On Golden Pond," so in the history of prime time, Bochco will go down as, at best, the Buzz Aldrin and not the Neil Armstrong of this expletive.
Meanwhile, Rutenberg writes that Sorkin "hopes to break a longstanding network taboo this...season: he wants a character to curse in a way that uses the Lord's name in vain." To Sorkin, "broadcast television [ought to] grow up as the rest of the country [has]...There's absolutely no reason why we can't use the language of adulthood in programs that are about adults."
The issue is not why television can't use the language of adulthood, it's why it shouldn't. Hollywood is trying to turn mythology into fact: Because cable - i.e., "The Sopranos" - is doing it, we must also do it to remain competitive. How silly. Have you ever turned away from a TV show because it wasn't vulgar enough? Have you ever known a single person who felt this way?
There is no demand, no need for this. Producers just want to be offensive because they can.
How do their bosses excuse themselves? Jeff Zucker, NBC's entertainment president, told Rutenberg, "We do have a responsibility, and I do think we're a broadcaster in the broadest sense. On the other hand, we have to open our eyes and understand we have to adapt."
In other words, the networks will be "responsible" in the sense that they won't go too far too fast, but they'll also "adapt," meaning they'll eventually permit it all. So they'll relax standards a bit this season, a bit more next season, and by, say, May 2006, who knows what the standards will be, or if there'll be standards worthy of the name.
The pressure is on. Rutenberg reports that "CBS executives say that writers are submitting scripts...that include every crude word imaginable, including one considered to be on the furthermost reaches of decorum (let's just say it has to do with the making of stem cells)."
Where, oh where, is the FCC? Asleep at the switch, unfortunately.
"Broadcast indecency," which covers "patently offensive" treatment of "sexual or excretory organs or activities," is permitted only between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. - in other words, it's forbidden in the first two hours of prime time, yet the FCC has said nothing about the violations to date.
Interestingly, while the relevant law also bars the kind of "profane" language that Sorkin is pushing for, the section of the FCC web site concerning obscenity - which can never be broadcast - and indecency doesn't discuss profanity. When I had an assistant ask the reason for the discrepancy, and what FCC policy is on the likes of "g-damn," he was given the runaround, but no answer.
Memo to George W. Bush: It would take one phone call to FCC chairman Michael Powell to simply remind him, since obviously he needs reminding, that the airwaves belong to the public, not Sorkin, Bochco, or NBC, and it's the FCC's job to protect the public's interest.