Words You Can't Say on TV

The FCC Prohibits Obscene, Indecent, or Profane Language

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Rules limiting what can be said on U.S. television are created by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which is responsible for regulating the U.S. airwaves. The rules often are complicated and open to interpretation, and understanding them is not as simple as memorizing George Carlin's famous 1972 comedy routine about seven words you can't say on TV that led to his arrest.

According to the FCC, three types of content—obscene, indecent, and profane—are restricted, and each is defined differently.

Obscenity

Content deemed to be obscene is not protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has ruled that content is obscene if it meets three standards:

  • Appeals to prurient interests: This means the content includes excessive sexual references or images or is specifically intended to arouse its intended audience sexually.
  • Depicts sexual acts in offensive ways: This means the content goes beyond acceptable community standards.
  • Lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value: Another way to look at this standard is that works of art, political issues that address sex, and scientific research that involves sex is protected from being labeled obscene.

    Content that is deemed to be obscene generally falls under the category of pornography because the focus is sexual in nature, and it has no value beyond its intent to be titillating.

    Obscene content is banned from the airwaves at all times.

    Indecency

    Sexual or excretory organs or activities or words describing them that do not meet all three standards to be deemed obscene are considered to be indecent, according to the FCC. This standard and the profanity standard are what the FCC use to restrict content including things like nudity or specific slang words that describe sexual or excretory functions.

    Indecent content is prohibited between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m.

    Profanity

    Similar to the indecency standard, this applies to what the FCC considers to be grossly offensive language outside of community standards.

    Like indecent content, profane content is prohibited between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. This time restriction is why shows like "Saturday Night Live" can get away with more risque language than a typical prime-time show.

    High-Profile Cases

    Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake had roles, whether planned or accidental, in the infamous "wardrobe malfunction" that exposed Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl in 2004. This incident led to an eight-year court battle that began with the FCC fining CBS, which aired the game, $550,000. CBS appealed the fine and won. The FCC challenged the appellate court's ruling, but the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

    A year before that, ABC's "NYPD Blue" showed a woman's bare bottom in prime time and was slapped with more than $1 million in fines. Those fines also were later overturned by an appellate court, which argued that the FCC standards were "unconstitutionally vague."

    NBC aired the Academy Award-winning Holocaust film "Schindler's List" uncut, which included both nudity and profanity, and was not fined by the FCC, even though it aired between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. The difference between a cop drama series and a blockbuster movie designed to accurately depict the horrors of history is likely for the FCC's distinction, but this kind of inconsistency is what has helped broadcasters succeed in court when challenging FCC rulings.

    Broadcast Television vs. Cable

    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.

    The major broadcast networks—ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC—and their affiliate stations all use public airwaves licensed from the government to transmit content for free, and that is what the FCC regulates. Cable channels get their programming into homes by wire or satellite to paying customers. Obscene content still is uncommon on cable channels, because obscene content is not protected by the First Amendment, but the FCC has no jurisdiction over cable channels when it comes to indecent or profane content.