The art of the deleted expletive has gone mainstream, with even such prime-time fare as 'American Idol' joining a trend toward slyly censored cursing. What the [bleep] are the networks thinking?
Reporting from New York —— Say what you want about Steven Tyler's famous lips, but it's hard to deny that they have a way with the F-bomb. During the 10th season of "American Idol," the singer dropped enough of them to blow up a small European country, and a network-censored montage that aired during the show's finale captured many of his best ones: "That was [bleep]-ing crazy good! Holy [bleep], what did I say?" "Slap that baby on the [bleep] and call me Christmas!" "Hellfire, save matches, [bleep] a duck and see what hatches!"
Getting bleeped: It's not just for awards-show speeches anymore. Once largely relegated to slips of the tongue during live events, censored cursing has evolved into a pre-planned, or at least largely expected, punch line that's network-approved and no longer lowbrow. Over the past few years, even smart network comedies such as "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation" have used bleeps to elicit laughs. And since last summer, when the FCC lost much of its power to fine networks, some writers are bleeping a blue streak.
Whether you blame it on Bono's "[bleep]-ing brilliant" outburst at the 2003 Golden Globes or chalk it up to TV scribes' freedom of speech, the use of bleeped curse words on television has risen steadily, particularly over the past few years, according to a recent study by the Parents Television Council, an L.A.-based media watchdog group. Across all networks and prime-time hours in 2010, a bleeped or muted S-word aired 95 times (up from 11 times in 2005) while a bleeped or muted F-word aired 276 times (up from 11 times in 2005). Last year, the U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Federal Communications Commission's efforts to limit "fleeting expletives" to late-night television, a ruling that has severely hampered the government agency's ability to punish what it deems indecent language.
As a result, some contend that networks are taking full advantage of the FCC's diminished capacity and are making a concerted effort to popularize profanity on television. Critics didn't have to strain themselves to find examples in May: NBC unveiled its fall comedy "Up All Night," which finds Christina Applegate playing a new mama who swears like a mother; a very pregnant Tina Fey hosted "Saturday Night Live" and confessed in an expletive-ridden promo that, "[Bleep] yeah, I'm swearing for two these days!"; and Tyler cursed with such consistency and oddball hilarity on "Idol" he fully earned the "bleep stick" that the show's producers gleefully bestowed upon him.
"It's more than just a coincidence that, a short time after that ruling, we had '$#*! My Dad Says' coming to CBS," argues Melissa Henson, the PTC's Director of Communications and Public Education. "We have certainly have seen more explicit language since then."
Henson points out that ABC recently picked up two pilots with expletives in their titles — "Good Christian Bitches" and "The Bitch from Apartment 23." Both titles were cleaned up when they were picked up to series in May, but Henson says ABC is testing viewers' boundaries.
Granted, it's hard to tell exactly where those boundaries lie. Some believe that the FCC's indecency rules were obsolete long ago, since they reflect a world without cable or the Internet.
"There's no doubt that cable has always been less restricted, so there's more pressure on networks to do the same thing," says Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University. "But the networks are caught, because even though the courts have slapped back the FCC, the networks' reputations are still smarting from the fines that were initially assessed to them."
Before most households had cable, many viewers were watching the same handful of television channels, which meant that the FCC effectively policed prime-time programming for a large percentage of American families. But today, the average household with a television can choose among 89 channels, according to Nielsen Media Research, which means parents have dozens of G-rated options, from Nickelodeon to the Cartoon Network.
Meanwhile, viewing habits have gotten more personal, with more viewers choosing what and when they watch instead of accidentally happening upon, say, Melissa Leo cursing her way through her Oscar acceptance speech. Regulation gets even trickier when the same shows that air on broadcast television are being watched on the Internet, which, like cable, isn't regulated by the government.
"Considering that people are getting their television in a more private way, it's less appropriate to censor it," argues Greg Daniels, creator of "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation." A few years before the FCC lost much of its power, Daniels says NBC's standards and practices department pressed him to cut a few bleeps from a heavily bleeped "P&R" episode that focused on a nickname given to Leslie's mom, "the [bleep] of Pawnee." Now, Daniels says, "If we were to cut something bleeped for broadcast, we would feel more comfortable putting it online, and that's becoming the main way that people get their entertainment."
Now that cursing has been embraced by mainstream pop music (Cee Lo's "[Bleep] You"), Broadway plays ("The [Bleep] with the Hat"), even children's books ("Go the [Bleep] to Sleep"), bleeping doesn't sting like it used to. It's not just sailors and circus clowns gone bad anymore: Regular people tend to curse more than their grandmothers did.
"Bleeping is funny, because it's like a reality bubble that's bursting," says Emily Spivey, a former "SNL" writer who created NBC's "Up All Night." "There's always a little surprise when you see someone on network TV doing something taboo that we do in real life."
As television increasingly relies on real life for entertainment, whether it's with reality TV or YouTube clip shows such as "Tosh.O" or mockumentaries like "The Office," bleeping just sounds more natural.
"The downside of using a bleeped word is that it reminds you that somebody's making the show, because somebody bleeped it, which takes you out of the story," says Daniels. "But in a mockumentary it's OK because you're always supposed to be aware that somebody's filming."
Plus mockumentaries are supposed to capture the actual way people really speak. Spivey contends that her own show does too, by bleeping two first-time parents. In one scene from "Up All Night," a mother and father are staring into their newborn's crib. "So [bleep]-ing cute," says the mother. "[Bleep]!" agrees the father.
"I was worried that [the scene] would get pulled out because of the baby being there," says Spivey, "but ultimately, the baby's face saved a totally out-of-control joke, because everyone can appreciate that feeling of, 'Holy [bleep], look at this baby! We made this baby with our bodies!' It really just came out of what me and my husband actually said when we were first came home with our own baby."
For Spivey, writing "Up All Night," meant acknowledging certain facts about parenting: that it's messy and depraved and horrifying and awesome. The PTC might worry about crass language being used in the prime-time hour, when children are often watching, but Spivey argues that the bleeping in her show couldn't be more family-friendly. "It's not two guys fighting in a bar," she says. "It's coming from a place of love."
As mass culture gives way to individualized programming, bleeping also helps separate casual viewers from true fans. Shows such as "South Park" and "Family Guy" offer unbleeped versions of bleeped episodes as an incentive to buy the DVD. Getting to hear what the characters are really saying in the uncensored version offers viewers the usual thrill of rebellion, along with some insider knowledge.
Jackson Publick — the nom de plume of Christopher McCulloch, who created Adult Swim's cult favorite cartoon "Venture Bros.," — believes that offering both clean and raunchy versions of episodes on DVD has helped him earn cred with fans.
"If we leave an episode bleeped on DVD, we're going to get [a hard time] from the 10 snotty people on the message boards," he says. "But we wouldn't have written our most offensive stuff if we knew we could air it unbleeped, because it's much funnier when it's censored."
The show's season finale featured a two-minute, excessively bleeped debate about the definition of a gay sex act. "Any time a body part got named, even if it wasn't a dirty one, we had to bleep it," he says, noting that "mouth" and "chest" were both nixed. "So it sounded like the characters were saying much worse things."
Could it be that the rise of bleeping is actually a return to traditional values? Robert Thompson, a professor of television and popular culture at Syracuse University, thinks that might be the case. He points out that it's been more than a decade since the CBS medical drama "Chicago Hope" used the first scripted S-word on prime-time network television.
At that time, he observes, "Everyone said, 'There go the floodgates. We're going to hear that word everywhere now.' But we didn't. It's 2011, and there's still surprisingly little cussing on network TV — and when there is, it's bleeped."
According to Daniels, there's a good reason for that. "Bleeping is just fun," he says. "Comedy writers are always looking for a way to get a little bit more from [standards and practices]. And this is a very good way to do that, if you're immature like us."