Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Offensive Language in Prime-Time Television: Four Years after Television Age and Content Ratings

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Offensive Language in Prime-Time Television: Four Years after Television Age and Content Ratings

Article excerpt

This study examines offensive language spoken in prime time on 7 broadcast networks in 2001. Profanity increased between 1997 and 2001 to a rate of 1 word every 8 minutes. FOX network programs contained more crudities than all other networks; UPN had the highest rate of such words per hour. Mild words such as "hell" and "damn" dominated, but the "seven dirty words" were heard once every 3 hours. Programs labeled TVPG aired more dirty words than those labeled TV14. Shows with an "L" rating and programs without a content rating contained more vulgarities than other content-rated shows.


"That sick bastard. He's probably sitting in a window somewhere with his gonads in his hand." A New York policewoman commenting on a suspect who made a threatening telephone call to a business. Third Watch. (Williams & Kennedy, 2001)

"When Christopher kicks your ass you can be my bitch." Christopher's girlfriend taunting his drag race opponent. Titus. (Sheridan & Hargrove, 2001)

These examples of offensive language aired on prime-time television during the fall of 2001. There was a time when such utterances on television would have stunned the viewing public. Network executives would have stumbled over themselves issuing public apologies to stunt the outcry. While television networks and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) do occasionally field complaints from individual viewers regarding such language, it is largely the organized efforts of conservative watchdog groups that get the attention (Farhi, 2002). Advocacy groups loudly voice their objections, lobby legislators and the networks to clean up the foul talk, and threaten advertisers with boycotts if they buy commercial time on profanity-laced programs (McConnell, 2003; Steinberg, 2002).

Age and content-based ratings for television programs were initiated in 1997 to appease viewers who demanded that they be forewarned about offensive content. Many viewers were outraged to be exposed to profane language, as well as violent and sexual content, in programs intended as family entertainment as well as those containing more mature content. After much industry and legislative debate, a program ratings system was devised that recommends an appropriate age for viewers and alerts viewers to violent, sexual, or profane images and words.

The implementation of a television program ratings system did not end the controversy surrounding offensive content. Concerned groups now claim that the ratings actually led to an increase in the amount of verbal vulgarities, sex, and violence. They claim that because viewers are forewarned, producers actually feel freer to include more inappropriate words and actions. Those viewers who take greatest umbrage at what they see and hear feel there is now less wholesome programming than before the ratings (Hontz, 1999; "Unintended Consequences," 1999).

This study examines the types and amount of offensive language on prime-time television four years after age and content ratings were implemented. Its findings are compared to research conducted in 1990, 1994, and 1997, shortly after program ratings were first initiated (Kaye & Sapolsky, 2001).

Language scholars, psychologists, and others who study offensive language use terms such as "cursing," "dirty words," "swearing," "profanity," and "cussing" to describe the many different types of words that are considered objectionable or offensive by the general public (Andersson & Trudgill, 1990; Arango, 1989; Jay, 1992, 2000; Montagu, 1967; O'Connor, 2000). This article uses similarly broad terms to refer to words that are deemed unacceptable in everyday conversation and public use (Andersson & Trudgill, 1990; Arango, 1989; Jay, 1992, 2000; Montagu, 1967) and, similar to Jay (2000), these terms are used interchangeably to avoid repetition.

Offensive Language--Mediated Discourse

Language that is considered taboo changes over time and not all swear words are created equal--some are more acceptable than others (Sheidlower, 1999). …

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