Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Offensive Language in Prime Time Television: Before and after Content Ratings

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Offensive Language in Prime Time Television: Before and after Content Ratings

Article excerpt

Portrayals of physical aggression and sexual behavior and language in prime time network television have been extensively researched. A related area that has received less attention is that of offensive language, which can be considered a form of verbal aggression (Jay, 1992). The use of cuss words, which are deemed offensive by many people, is increasing in everyday discourse (Cameron, 1970) as well as on network television (Polskin, 1989).

In 1950, Arthur Godfrey was lambasted by viewers, affiliate stations, and CBS officials for saying "damn" and "hell" on his live program (MacDonald, 1994). Casual observation suggests that the use of crude language on network television has been increasing since the late 1980s (Polskin, 1989). The first known scripted usage of "goddamn" was on LA Law in December 1988 (Polskin, 1989). Audiences heard "penis envy" and "biker bitch" on Murphy Brown (Bechloss, 1990). Stronger language is tolerated more now by the networks than when Laraine Newman had to apologize to NBC's broadcast standards department for saying "pissed off" during a performance on Saturday Night Live (Hill & Weingrad, 1986).

Few prime time network programs have stirred more controversy in recent years than NYPD Blue. Producer Steven Bochco declared that he was "developing a show that would parallel, in language and adult situations, much of what the public might see in an R-rated movie" (Coe, 1993, p. 18). For instance, in the opening episode of the series, a male detective is shown yelling at a female assistant district attorney. She retorts with "I'd say res ipsa loquitur, if I thought you knew what it meant." The detective grabs his crotch and barks out, "Hey, ipsa this, you pissy little bitch!" (Leland, Fleming, Miller, & Smith, 1993).

The subsequent success of NYPD Blue may have signaled a new level of acceptance of "blue" language on prime time television. The program was heavily criticized for its use of offensive words and phrases and it has sparked interest and concern about the blatant use of swear words on television in general. Pressure from some members of the viewing public to curb the use of offensive language as well as depictions of violence and sexual activity has led to implementing age-based and content-based ratings systems for television content. Included in the ratings are warnings for "coarse language" and "suggestive dialogue."

While the nature of sexual and violent television content has been well-documented (Greenberg, 1994; National Television Violence Study 2, 1997), research examining the amount and use of offensive words that many viewers find objectionable is lacking. Many policymakers, broadcast industry leaders, and members of the viewing public make judgments about the frequency of objectionable words on television but there are few studies on which to base these opinions. Therefore, the present longitudinal study examines the amount and kinds of "coarse" language spoken on prime time during three television seasons: 1990, 1994--after the debut of NYPD Blue--and 1997--after the implementation of television content ratings (Fall, 1997).

Offensive Language: General and Mediated Discourse

Jay (1992) uses terms such as "cursing" and "dirty words" to describe the many different types of words that are considered objectionable or offensive by "the person on the street." The authors of this paper follow the precedent set by Jay by using broad terms such as "cursing," "cussing," "dirty words," and "coarse language," among others, to refer to offensive or objectionable speech without "focusing on a specific type of use" (Jay, 1992, p. 1). Although language scholars may find these broad terms somewhat imprecise, their meanings are widely accepted by the general public as terms that describe words that are considered unacceptable in everyday conversation and public use (Jay, 1992).

There are little data on the frequency of offensive language in general conversation. …

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