Words You Can't Say on TV

What You Can't Say or Show on Broadcast TV

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FCC rules on television are created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is responsible for regulating the U.S. airwaves. While many FCC rules have changed over the years, like ones regarding how many TV stations a single company can own, many broadcasters complain that FCC rules on indecency have been revised very little, despite massive upheavals in society and in media.

You Can't Say That on TV

The person who may have mounted the greatest challenge to FCC indecency standards wasn't a broadcaster at all, but comedian George Carlin. His famous 1972 routine called, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" got him arrested and led to a U.S. Supreme Court case.

Carlin became more famous, while the Supreme Court upheld the FCC's authority. But decades later, the confusion over what words are allowed to be said on broadcast TV is still unclear.

According to the FCC's own description, profane speech is so offensive that it amounts to a nuisance. Critics would say that could apply to the vast majority of TV commercials, which they would say are both offensive and a nuisance.

That's one of the broadcasters' complaints -- that the definition of profane speech is so vague and broad that it becomes impossible to enforce uniformly. An additional wrinkle is that these standards apply between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. when children might be watching. Saturday Night Live can get away with more risque language in late night than a typical prime-time show.

That's just scripted programming. Put on a live broadcast, and an expletive may accidentally get blurted out. Such was the case with Cher at an awards show. That led to a battle between the FCC and Fox, which aired the awards telecast, over whether the network was responsible for a celebrity's unscripted four-letter word on live TV.

What Can't Be Seen on TV

If the FCC rules on speech are unclear, broadcasters say standards are even more confusing about what can be shown visually on TV. No broadcast network would dare air pornography. But while sexual scenes and those including brief nudity often lead to controversy and viewer boycotts -- only occasionally does the FCC take action.

ABC's NYPD Blue showed a woman's bare bottom in prime time and was slapped with more than $1 million in fines. NBC aired the Academy Award-winning Holocaust film Schindler's List uncut, which included both nudity and profanity, and was praised, not punished.

Sure, there's a difference between a cop drama series and a blockbuster movie designed to accurately depict the horrors of history. But broadcasters would say there's nothing in the FCC's standards that categorizes content in that way. They would point out that indecency standards, like those for profanity, are in effect between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. when Schindler's List aired.

Broadcasters wouldn't criticize the message or the value of a film like Schindler's List. They're just looking for consistent standards that could be applied all programming. As with profanity, indecency can sometimes be unknowingly broadcast on live TV.

Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake had roles, whether planned or accidental, in the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" which exposed Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl in 2004. That led to a $550,000 fine against CBS, which aired the game. A court later overturned the decision, although that's being appealed.

The FCC Rules for Broadcast Television vs. Cable

Viewers who switch channels between broadcast stations and cable TV channels probably never consider the differences between CBS and the USA Network, or Fox and FX. But the government views its job regulating these channels in a specific way.

ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC networks, their owned and operated (O&O) stations and their affiliate stations all use the airwaves to transmit content for free. Cable channels get their programming into homes by wire or satellite to paying customers.

Because the FCC's function is to monitor the airwaves, it does not regulate cable TV. That was made clear when it did not take action against the FX cable TV show Nip/Tuck in 2005, despite getting complaints about its content.

Broadcasters would point out that their regulated programming must face unregulated competition from cable. But as long as broadcasters hold licenses to use the government airwaves, the FCC will have its hand in setting program standards.