Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Taboo or Not Taboo? That Is the Question: Offensive Language on Prime-Time Broadcast and Cable Programming

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Taboo or Not Taboo? That Is the Question: Offensive Language on Prime-Time Broadcast and Cable Programming

Article excerpt

At no time in history has more attention been paid to the use of offensive language on television than now. When the singer Bono excitedly blurted out, "This is really, really fucking brilliant," on the 2003 Golden Globes awards show, he inadvertently rekindled a battle over verbal indecency ("Scrubbing the Airwaves," 2005).

The Bono incident was certainly not the first time in television history that objectionable language has made the headlines. In the past, foul language may have elicited viewer attention and complaints but they were largely unheeded and unpunished beyond a public apology issued by the offender. But it was Bono's use of the f-word that riled viewers and was a catalyst for the recent resurgence against verbal indecency on television. Concerned parents and viewers are bombarding the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) with complaints against language they deem unacceptable for television.

Protests against objectionable language have extended beyond broadcast television to cable shows. With approximately 85% of U.S. households now subscribing to cable (Cable TV Advertising Bureau, 2007) viewers are exposed to a wide array of programs many of which are purported to contain coarse dialogue that may not be suitable for younger or easily offended viewers. Although cable programs are commonly considered verbally raunchier than broadcast programs, this perception may be based on casual observation or the singling out of a few particularly egregious incidents rather than on empirical analysis. The purpose of this content analysis is to investigate the frequency and types of offensive language on broadcast and cable television to determine if the perception is well founded.

The present study examines whether programs originally shown on the seven highest-rated cable networks (Lifetime, MTV, Nick-at-Nite, SciFi, Spike, TNT, USA) are more verbally offensive than those shown on broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, UPN, WB, PAX). This study extends previous published work conducted by Kaye and Sapolsky (2001, 2004) by including the cable networks. Further, although several media watchdog organizations have tracked indecent language on cable television, this is the only known academic study that compares cable to broadcast shows. The analysis of foul language includes the amounts and types of crude language. In addition, objectionable words are examined according to the prime-time hours in which they were uttered, and whether they were spoken or implied (bleeped or pixilated out).

Offensive Language on Broadcast and Cable Television

The general public and language scholars loosely describe words that are unacceptable or offensive using broad terms such as "cursing," "dirty," "profane" and "off-color" (Andersson & Trudgill, 1990; Arango, 1989; Jay, 1992, 2000; Montagu, 1967; O'Connor, 2000). In the present study, as in other studies, these terms are used interchangeably to avoid repetition (Kaye & Sapolsky, 2004, 2005; Sapolsky & Kaye, 2005).

Offensive language infrequently has been slipped into programs since the early days of television, but starting in about the late 1980s, coarse language was scripted with increasing frequency (Leland, Fleming, Miller & Smith, 1993; Polskin, 1989). By the 1990s, viewers were hearing "pissy little bitch" and "loud-mouthed douche bag" on NYPD Blue, "you suck" on Uncle Buck, "nice ass" on Union Square, "lousy big shit, thinks he's so big" on The Simpsons, "bastard" and "motherfucking hurt" on Cops, though the sound is cut after "mother," and of course the infamous episode of Comedy Central's South Park in which "shit" was uttered 162 times (Friend, 2001), even though it was a parody of the overuse of cussing.

The popular press often singles out one or two extreme incidents of objectionable language, but such reports typically do not include analysis of such language over time. Several academic studies, however, have tracked the frequency of offensive language on prime-time broadcast television over the years (Kaye & Fishburne, 1997; Kaye & Sapolsky, 2004, 2005; Sapolsky & Kaye, 2005). …

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