Did The People v. O.J. Simpson Just Use the Word @!$#%@# on Television?: The State of Profane Language on Television

This article considers the use of profrane langauge on television.
April 1, 2016

I never thought you could swear on public television.  Growing up, I remember watching movies or reality television and all of a sudden, I heard a “BLEEEEEEEEEEP” sound pour through the speakers.  Many times, the program would even cover the person’s “dirty” lips with a black box.  It became normal to be shielded from these words (as if we don’t know what the characters are really saying).  Therefore, I was shocked when the third episode of FX’s series American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson used the word “motherf***er.”  There was no bleeping, no censorship, and no mistake what actress Sarah Paulson, playing prosecutor Marcia Clark, uttered.


After the program aired, social media went wild.  The messages ranged from shock (“Holy sh*t did @ACSFX break the basic cable mother***er barrier tonight?”)  to approval (“Oh snap! @FXNetworks @MsSarahPaulson @ACSFX made tv history! 1st #MotherFucker on basic cable? About time”). [1]  However, is the use of the expletive on television really so novel or unexpected?  Will all programs now begin cursing?  Was this a one time television slip-up?


It turns out that FX can use expletives unlike broadcast networks such as NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and the CW. [2]  Basic cable networks do not have to abide by the same Federal Communications Commission (FCC) guidelines, which regulate the use of profanity, violence, and sexual visuals on television.  [3]  Furthermore, broadcast networks can “air indecent and/or profane material between 10 pm and 6 am the next morning, which is known as the ‘safe harbor’ period.”   [4]  According to FCC standards, there are no words that are actually unlawful on television between those time periods.  [5]


Is it against our right to free speech?  The FCC is permitted to require stations to bleep or exclude “obscene material,” which is not protected under freedom of speech in the First Amendment.  [6]  According to the FCC, profanity is language that is “so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.”  [7]  However, television is less restricted than media such as the radio because it is subscription based, which provides individuals with control over their content.  [8]  Subscription channels are different from broadcasts, which are available to the general public.  [9]


Should television programs really need to bleep out crude language?  Are we desensitized as a society to this type of language and is this limiting artistically?  ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox do not allow characters to use the F-word or the S-word, but other words such as b*tch and d*ck are becoming more common on television.  [10]  Artists such as Kurt Sutter, the creator of Sons of Anarchy on F/X, have stated their objections to these restrictions.  [11]  Sutter stated that the excluded words are “so arbitrary.  It’s just basically people in suits making up the rules.”  [12]


Only time will tell if words such as mother**cker will cease to be controversial.  In another ten years, we may not think twice about cursing on television and I won’t feel the need to use asterisks when writing an article about profanity.  Maybe the O.J. Simpson television drama is not so novel.  The use of the expletive used was just about an artist exercising his right to pay homage to this true story and the writer’s artistic interpretation.

[1] See Jose Cabrera (@‏areofilm), Twitter (Feb. 17, 2016), https://twitter.com/areofilm; see also F. Marry Kill (@purebredwarrior), Twitter (Feb. 17, 2016), https://twitter.com/purebredwarrior.
[2] Ned Ehrbar, Yes, "The People v. O.J. Simpson" can use that dirty word, CBS News (Feb. 17, 2016, 3:01 PM), http://www.cbsnews.com/news/american-crime-story-curse-word-fcc/.
[3] See id.
[4] Obscenity, Indecency & Profanity - FAQ, FCC, https://www.fcc.gov/reports-research/guides/obscenity-indecency-profanity-faq.
[5] See id.
[6] Obscene, Indecent and Profane Broadcasts, FCC, https://consumercomplaints.fcc.gov/hc/en-us/articles/202731600-Obscene-Indecent-and-Profane-Broadcasts.
[7] Id.
[8] Id.
[9] Id.
[10] Neda Ulaby, What The $@** Is Up On Cable These Days?, NPR (Sept. 10, 2013, 7:11 PM), http://www.npr.org/2013/09/10/218525978/what-the-is-up-on-cable-these-days.
[11] See id.
[12] Id.