, Research Paper
“Can They Say That On Television?”
Yes, they can, and increasingly they do. The days of television being highly regulated, pure and decent may be over. It looks as if the ever-shifting rules governing what’s OK to say on television are made to be broken. The amount of violence, vulgarity, and sexual content that can be found at 8:00 P.M. or afterwards this year on television is unprecedented in the history of broadcasting. (Aucion, 1999). Many people wonder how television could have sunk to such a low level of glorifying violence, embracing vulgar language, and expanding sexual content in current programming.
Most viewers are troubled more by violence on TV than by profanity or sexual content, especially after being woken up by the Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado. Vulgar language is being embraced faster than we think. There are dirty words, and plenty of them, on prime-time TV. (Pennington, 1999) Prime time is also saturated with sex more explicitly than ever. Lusty scenes, partial nudity, free discussions of issues like the president s oral sex, all show the media’s general relaxation of sexual guidelines.
There are a fews subtle influences contributing to the loosening of broadcast content on television, including: staff cutbacks, which reduce departments responsible for enforcing programming standards; network executives who compete to attract the most talented writers by allowing more creative leeway; writers who resist the shackles placed upon them while competing against pay-TV shows which operate under virtually no content-restrictions. (LA Times, 9/19/99) However, the more pertinent reasons for television’s increasing boldness in language, violence, and sexuality involve society’s steadily increasing overall permissiveness in each of those areas.
The answers to how television got so vulgar can be seen by looking at three main facts. First of all, the standards of what is considered “permissible” in the media are changing at the same rate as our overall cultural permissiveness rises. Writers want to depict current true-to-life pictures of what they believe are fairly common lifestyles. Secondly, since young viewers are being targeted, more is done to attract that audience. High levels of action, violence, foul language and sexuality are accepted and expected by teenagers. (Lowry, 1999). Third, writers are attempting to keep “shockproof” viewers entertained. Viewers who access internet pornography and R-rated movies on cable TV are more difficult to impact than in the past. (Levin, 1999).
The standards regarding what is considered permissible on television corresponds closely with our overall increased cultural permissiveness. In order for advertisers to decide to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy time on show that has profanity, heavy sexual content, and shocking violence, they must be fairly certain that the content is not far from what society accepts. (Lowry, 1999) We are a long way from early days when TV had strict network standards requiring married couples to sleep in twin beds. Other than occasional uproars about taboos, our society shows by TV ratings that have accepted all changes as realistic life-portrayal. In the early 80’s, limits were pushed with dramas such as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, which offered frank sex talk, brief nudity, and scatological humor. All along, the shows that push the violence, language and sex the furthest are the most widely viewed. (Levin, 1999).
Violent shows train children to be violent. If Americans would wake up to what causes violence around the country, they would probably bann violent television shows and boycott sponsors of such programs. (Editoria, 1999). Although the Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado woke people up to the effects of violence on TV, current shows that glorify violence still show high ratings. Professional wrestling is at the head of the line of increasing violence in programming. Using chairs, tables, gargage cans, barbed wire to fight is hardly the sport of wrestling. Rather than the old myth of good and evil, we now see just the evil. The “Buried Alive” match where one wrestler shovels dirt onto his opponent who was wacked in the head with a sledgehammer pretty much says it all. It s not really wrestling, it s a brawl. (Graydon, 1999) A network news feature recently showed a back-yard videotape of 14- and 15- year old boys staging their own matches, exfoliating each other s faces with cheese graters, smashing one another with baseball bats and jumping off garage roofs onto folding tables.
TV writers contend that rude language on TV is not any worse than one might hear in day-to-day life. Networks have pushed toward a new freedom to use formerly taboo words and phrases such as “ass”, “sucks”, “piss off” and “get laid” and “screw you”, along with the traditional “damn” and “hell”. A recent premiere on Fox TV opened with a character using the F-word six times in the first minute (bleeped, of course). Bleeps don’t even try hard to hide what’s really being said. Television is swearing as loud as it can to get people’s attention. (Aucoin, 1999). TV writers argue that using adult language is merely being faithful to the way people talk. There is a real world ever-escalating vulgarity factor, with the recent presidential sex scandal news reports leading the way. Prime TV broke the obscenity barrier with words with a recent “Sh Happens” episode of “Chicago Hope” on CBS. TV writers feel that viewers would not have even noticed if the Associated Press hadn t run an article in advance pointing it out. (Pennington, 1999). The “f” word, for the time being, remains off-limits, although lip readers can see it everywhere. Even of sporting events, when a golfer misses a putt, you know what he s saying.
Network TV recently purposefully ventured far into the dirty-word territory in an entertainment show. The response was, according to CBS, that the station received three phone calls, no faxes or email messages from viewers. (McGuire, 1999). If public opinion is that indifferent, profanity on network TV could become as commonplace as it is in the movies.
Rather than thinking TV has reached new lows in sexual content, some think that it is simply just catching up with a new cultural sexual permissiveness. On an NBC hit show, a gay lead is portrayed as normal. In a Fox TV episode, a lead character videotapes himself having sex, and sells it on the Internet. Ratings show that viewers don’t seem to mind the growing permissiveness. (Levin, 1999). words like “penis” used freely (especially after the focus on the president’s oral sex issue). A new prime-time show this season is UPN s “Shasta McNasty” about a young, sex-obscessed hip-hop group. Although groups like the Parents Television council speak out against the absence of a “family viewing hour” on network TV, networks have generally discovered that there is not much outcray from the majority of their viewers when sexual content increases. The ratings show that it s what the public seems to want. (Lowry, 1999). The networks plead that their writers need to stay true to their artistic truthfulness and creative judgment. Shows with high levels of risque sexual dialogue draw large audiences. Writers also say that “Once you move away from violence, you always move toward sex.” (Levin, 1999)
Networks who drive toward the “edge” say they are justified in loosening the reigns when it comes to sexual content. Since three quarters of all homes now have more than one TV set (compared with just 35% in 1970), the networks argue that they should enjoy greater license to create shows aimed at pleasing adults. Again, since HBO and Fox are aimed at adult viewers, networks are desperate to win them back.
Aside from the obviously loosening cultural permissiveness, two other reasons for TV s sliding standards are: the quest for young viewers, and the effort to entertain an increasingly unshockable audience.
Networks are desperate to reach the teenage and young adult audiences. In capturing the interest of young viewers, writers realize that young adults are less likely to object to relaxed limits than older viewers. Often teen dramas which don t show actual heavy sex scenes have enough “talk” about sex that it becomes nearly as explicit as actual scenes would be. Professional wrestling s use of violence and vulgarity in appealing to younger viewers is under pressure from advertisers and parent groups. (McKay, 1999). Criticism of the violence, the role models, the profanity and sexual content of wrestling centers around concern for what kids attitude toward their fellow man will be after growing up on this kind of vulgar entertainment.
Networks are also struggling to entertain “shockproof” viewers who have choices such as Internet pornography, R-rated movies, Cable TV . It becomes difficult to excite viewers who have “seen it all”. Only nearly half of viewers report being shocked by anything they ve seen on the networks. The groundbreaking shows which take language and sex the furthest have usually been the award-sinning and Emmy nominee shows. (Levin, 1999) Writers competing for high ratings know they need to be aggressively shocking to get attention. Network shows are obviously being aimed at winning back their audiences from more uncensored viewing.
First, a close look at specific strategies used to attract young viewers shows that writers try to stick close to what kids are saying in homes all over America. There is said to be an expansion of talk about sex, especially among teenagers. A few of this season s new series are: “Manchester Prep” where teens talk of seducing a school administrator and talk about another girl being a virgin. In WB s “Popular”, two high school sophomores roll around together half-dressed. In CBS s “Now and Again”, a revived man examining his new body admires his “package” with wide eyes. In Fox s “Action”, a bleeped out comedy routine includes jokes about sex, drugs, and oversized genitalia sported by a closeted gay who parades around nude. (Lowry, 1999).
The violence and vulgarity seen in professional wrestling has certainly escalated in the past 15 years. Some people believe it has gone over the edge lately. Some big name advertisers are yanking ads because they don t want to be associated with violent, foul-mouthed warriors and lewd story lines. The largest sponsor to do this was Coca-Cola Co., who yanked its ads last month. Their spokesman said “We felt the WWF had crossed the line in terms of content and language.” (McKay, 1999). Children are imitating programs, causing injuries and in at least one case, an accidental death. Scenes of wrestlers pouring gasoline on one another, the crowd shouting at villains, wrestlers using crowbars and chairs, and a porn-type invitation into a wrestler s bedroom are pushing far beyond the limits. Kids in schools are using the same vocabulary, doing the same gestures as TV wrestlers. School administrators are agreeing that the problems are escalating. Kids are being discouraged from wearing wrestling T-shirts to school because of provocative and inappropriate messages. (Graydon, 1999).
Next, a look at how television attempts to shock the unshockable viewer shows that competing with Cable TV, Internet, and R-rated movies is really not a fair fight. There is really a double standard between cable and the networks regarding content, one that allows cable to go further in terms of language, violence and nudity than over-the-air networks, which are governed by the Federal Communications Commission. As networks lose viewers, more people at home don t make the distinction between cable and networks, they are all just channels coming through the box to them. The press showers praise on cable shows which really push the limits (like “Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” and “South Park”. But, if networks approach the same levels, they get burned by critics. (McGuire, 1999).
Networks want to expand the boundaries of the programs they air because they are responding to what they perceive as new competitive realities. They want to win back the defecting viewers. They think the audiences are demanding them to be relevant and to keep on exploring and experimenting. Sometimes, they push to outrageous limits, just in order to allow room for compromise. (Aucoin, 1999).
One of the things which threw viewers way beyond shock was the year of weathering reports about oral sex in the Oval Office. The word “penis” lost its shock value after commentators said it dozens of times during Lewinsky reports. Eventually, they even stopped looking uncomfortable even when talking about acts performed. The president s sex scandal suddenly led the world s escalating vulgarity factor on television. (Pennington, 1999). Ironically, cleaning up the airways may be a major campaign issue politically in the upcoming campaign.
Deregulation of the TV industry shows how our broader culture has changed. Although it is tempting to go back to tell stories the way we did back in the wholesome era, it woud not really explain our culture realistically any more.
Aucoin, Don (1999) “Almost Anything Goes – TV Turns Airwaves A deeper Shade of Blue” Boston Globe 23 Sept., 1A
Graydon, Royce (1999) “Fit To Watch?” Star Tribune 24 Sept., 1E
Levin, Gary (1999) “Primetime Lives on Edge With Nudity, Sex” The Detroit News 13 Oct., 5B
Lowry, Brian (1999) “Television: Adjusting the Off-Color Contrast” Los Angeles Times 19 Sept., 4
McGuire, Mark (1999) “Chicago Hope Pushes Censorship Envelope With Profanity” The San Diego Union-Tribune 18 Oct., 2E
McKay, Betsy (1999) “WWF Clamps Down on Smackdown! ” New York Times 30 Nov., 14B
Pennington, Gail (1999) “The Following Story Is Rated TV-MA (For Mature Audiences Only) St. Louis Post 23 Oct., 3F
Editorial (1999) “Letters Page” Denver Rocky Mountain News 37 July, 33A