Whether you're a dedicated couch potato or only an occasional channel surfer, I'm sure you've noticed that swearing on prime-time television is on the rise.
According to the New York Times, between the hours of 8 and 10 p.m., Eastern, 7 Central, you're more than twice as likely to hear someone called a douche this year than in 2007, and the incidence of bitch in that time slot has tripled in the past decade. The way things are trending, it won't be long before you'll be as likely to encounter profanity on the air as commercials. But wait, there's more.
The Times reports that George Carlin's seven dirty words may still be banned by the networks, but douche, bitch, and suck abound on sitcoms as well as more serious dramas like "Law and Order" and "Grey's Anatomy." TV dialogue is becoming edgier than ever, not just on late night, when younger viewers may be sleeping, but during the family hours once reserved for tamer talk.
The increase in airtime profanity hasn't been without controversy. Back in 2005, one of the Oscar nominees for best original song from a motion picture had the word "bitch" in its lyrics. You might expect that sort of thing from a song whose title was "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," but the media was abuzz over how viewers would react when the song was played during the Oscar telecast. And what if it actually won an Oscar?
This was breaking news, and I was asked by CNN to comment on the increasing use of profanity in public. So I spent eight minutes as a CNN talking head doing just that on the morning of the Oscars -- with the caveat that I couldn't actually say "bitch" on the air.
While cable isn't reined in by the FCC the way the over-the-air networks are, perhaps CNN was afraid that using "bitch" and "ho," even in that Sunday morning time slot when family-values viewers would be in church, might send even more of its audience over to FOX, where the obscenities are political rather than lexical.
The author as talking head: I couldn't actually say the words "bitch" and "ho," whose use I was asked to comment on. (That part is true, but in case you're wondering, it wasn't Lou Dobbs who interviewed me.)
Since I was unfamiliar with the nominated song, my interviewers described the lyrics as gingerly as possible -- they couldn't name it on the air or play a clip without risking offense. I too had to use euphemisms instead of the taboo words, though I was assured that should I slip up and say something forbidden, there was a tape delay to sanitize my language. When the song was performed at the Oscars that evening, "bitches" was replaced by "witches" and other potentially offensive lyrics were cleaned up as well.
The group 3-6 Mafia performing a sanitized version of the winning song at the 2005 Oscars
As it turned out, the song won, and while in the end nobody seemed to care about its use of bad words, the next year the Oscar for best song went to "I Need to Wake Up," a number with not a single lyric malfunction, from Al Gore's global-warming documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth." And to reinforce the notion that winners refrain from profanity, "I Need to Wake Up" won the Nobel Prize as well, or at least Al Gore did.
Does more swearing on television reflect a general increase in swearing in our society or is it just an attempt by the broadcast networks to keep up with their cable competition? That's a question that CNN's interviewers asked -- it's one that reporters ask me all the time.
Here's what I tell them. It's hard to track whether people are swearing more than they used to, since there's little swearing in the historical record, and it's just about impossible to know how much people swore in conversation fifty years ago, or in the eighteenth century, or back in Middle Ages, or when humans first emerged from the primordial mists. I'm not even sure that we can measure how much people swear today -- that would require outfitting a group of test subjects with recording devices for an extended period of time and hoping they'd forget they were being recorded so their speech would be less inhibited.
What we can see, however, as the Times confirms, is an increase in public displays of profanity off-screen as well as in the media: just as it's more common today on the air and at the Cineplex, swearing's more common in the classroom, the office, and on the street than it was back in the happy days of the 1950s. Do marines curse more today, or truckers, or ordinary people in their living rooms? That's what enquiring minds want to know, but in the absence of the proverbial fly on the wall and lots of hidden microphones, it's a question that we'll never be able to answer.
Another thing is clear as well. While in some cases content warning labels for television programs initially dampen their profanity quotient, that reduction in swearing is just temporary, and scriptwriters eventually pile on even stronger language in the hopes of attracting a wider audience. Profanity may be offensive; it may drive sensitive viewers away; but in the end it does sell product.
Plus quantity issues aside, profanity, obscenity, and taboo terms in general seem to fill a basic human communication need. We may ban them, or complain about them, or even fine people a nickel each time they cuss, but no matter what the FCC or CNN think, this class of words is not likely to disappear anytime soon.
UPDATE: TV may be softening its attitude to public swearing, but apparently Apple is cracking down on the practice. According to Macworld, the company's iPhone application store initially rejected the Ninjawords Dictionary because the application had too many dirty words in its lexicon. Although the dictionary that comes bundled with Macintosh computers contains every imaginable taboo term and carries no user warnings at all, a cleaned-up version of the $1.99 Ninjawords app finally managed to get approval, but not without an accompanying "over 17" restriction: