Talking a "Blue" Streak: Context and Offensive Language in Prime Time Network Television Programs

By Kaye, Barbara K.; Sapolsky, Barry S. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

Talking a "Blue" Streak: Context and Offensive Language in Prime Time Network Television Programs


Kaye, Barbara K., Sapolsky, Barry S., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


This study examined the context of offensive language heard in prime-time programs aired on seven broadcast networks in 2001. Offensive words occurred more in the 9-10 p.m. hour. Situation comedies contained more instances of objectionable words than other program genres, but offensive language was more likely to be heard in a non-humorous setting. Most objectionable words were directed at another character, and lead characters were more likely to curse than secondary characters. Finally, vulgarities were typically met with either a neutral or positive reaction.

Television violence studies often focus on antisocial effects of viewing aggressive behavior. While most concentrate on physical aggression, few have looked at verbal aggression, even though it is easier to imitate verbal than physical violence.1

Profanity, considered a form of verbal aggression,2 is becoming more commonplace in everyday discourse as well as on network television.1 Profane words and phrases are increasingly scripted into television programs much to the chagrin of parents, conservative viewers, and legislators pressuring the television industry to set limits on verbal profanities. "The words people are willing to say in public and what they are willing to watch on television have become more explicit."4

Many people fear that profanity-laced language contributes to the erosion of a civil society and to increased general rudeness, emotional abuse, and physical violence as viewers, especially children, receive social cues and learn how to behave from what they hear and see on television. 5 Social Learning Theory provides a framework that accounts for television's socialization effects. Social learning takes place through observing the behaviors of other, and the context within which the behaviors are presented may mediate reactions to those behaviors.6 Reactions to swearing on television are mixed and often depend on the context in which they are used. For example, foul language spoken to release tension at sporting events, in law enforcement situations or in other emotionally heated circumstances is more likely to be overlooked than cuss words said in a home or school setting,7 and may be more tolerated when exclaimed by characters of high social status or by primary characters.8

Public outcry over verbal indecency simmers until a well-publicized incident sparks renewed interest. Newscasts mentioning oral sex during the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, Bono's infamous use of the "f-word" on live television, and the more recent general disgust with raunchy language on Howard Stern's popular radio program have caught the attention of an offended audience who is screaming that enough is enough. While the public reacts to extreme cases of verbal indecency, less is known about the frequency of objectionable language that is uttered on mainstream and seemingly innocuous programs every day. Therefore, this study examines the types and amount of offensive language on prime time television in 2001. Specifically, the study examines the context in which offensive words were spoken: program genre, hour of prime time, humorous or serious intent, directionality (speaking to self or others), centrality of the speaker's character (primary or secondary to the plot), and reactions to profanity.

Offensive Language on Television

Scholars who study offensive language use general terms such as "cussing," "swearing," "profanity," and "verbal vulgarities" to describe words that are considered objectionable or offensive by the everyday person.9 Similar broad terms are used throughout this paper to refer to offensive words and phrases without "focusing on a specific type of use."10 Following Jay11 and others, these terms are used interchangeably to avoid repetition.

Offensiveness of Words. Swear words differ in their level of tabooness. Some mild words are considered acceptable in certain circumstances, while some harsher words are deemed off limits except perhaps in exceptional situations. …

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Talking a "Blue" Streak: Context and Offensive Language in Prime Time Network Television Programs
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