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The Parents Television Council: Habitat for Inanity? - The LAMP

The Parents Television Council: Habitat for Inanity?

By November 9, 2010 News 4 Comments

Today, the Parents Television Council (PTC) released their report “Habitat for Profanity: Broadcast TV’s Sharp Increase in Foul Language.” The gist of it is that since 2005, the use of swear words in prime time television has increased by 69.3%. PTC blames the decision by a federal appeals court last July which found the Federal Communications Commission’s “fleeting expletives” policy to be unconstitutional. The PTC may be correct in this point, but there is a lot more to consider here.

First, let’s look at the methodology: The study sampled 124 hours of prime-time programming during the fall television premier season in 2005, and 128 hours during the same season in 2010, and from these samples came up with the 69.3% increase. But what about 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009? It is possible–if not highly likely–that this increase occurred gradually over five years, perhaps with a spike in the wake of the FCC decision. Cultural mores and language shifts don’t happen overnight, but the PTC paints a different picture when they fail to track programming between 2005 and 2010. Demonstrating a spike from 2009 to 2010 would have made a much more compelling argument that the FCC case has had a major impact on the use of profanity in television.

The second issue is that the study only sampled the premier season, which might be the least stable period in television programming because it is a testing period. Just this year, broadcasters put out 22 new shows. Within a month, three were canceled and, judging by ratings, eight more should be on the chopping block. TV executives expect that most of their new shows will not make it through a full season, and the decisions of what to cut are almost always based on viewership. If parents don’t want their kids to watch a certain prime-time show, they can turn it off or block it with parental controls, and essentially cast a vote for what kind of television they want to see.

Another element to consider is that language is constantly changing. For example, I can think of at least a few words which might have been widely acceptable thirty years ago but which now are considered the height of racism or sexism. It is possible that some of the profane words which were tracked–I’m thinking here about the words “crap,” “hell,” “piss,” “screw” and “suck”–might not be considered as bad today as they used to be. Rightly or wrongly, certain words and phrases become normalized over time, and their impact changes. Decency has always been difficult to define, largely because it is not fixed. The FCC itself has not been able to provide an objective set of criteria for decency, which happens to be exactly the reason why its indecency policy was ruled “unconstitutionally vague.”

Finally, at The LAMP we always want our students to consider the source of a message–who created that advertisement, reported the story or took those pictures? So in looking at the PTC study, it would be insincere not to also consider the PTC itself. As it happens, the organization was hit with some pretty bad press lately when, on October 24, the New York Times published an article exposing financial incompetence, extortion allegations, lack of due diligence and misrepresentation of membership claims. After Matthew Lasar at Ars Technica also wrote about the PTC’s decline, the organization’s eloquent public relations associate responded to Mr. Lasar via Twitter saying, “Dear @MatthewLasar – pretty lousy piece you wrote about the PTC.” The organization then followed up with a letter dismissing all claims and calling the piece a “distraction.” How’s that for a structured defense?

All of this is to say that the PTC study needs to be put into perspective. They tracked the number of times “bad” words showed up during two weeks in both 2005 and 2010, and did not provide any context or look at the content of the programs. In my opinion, content is far more important than a word as a standalone message. Shouldn’t we be looking deeper? A bad word can be damaging, but I think that any television show sending a broader message embracing racism, sexism, homophobia or any other kind of intolerance is of far greater concern and more worthy of our attention.

–Emily Long

  • Mike Hawk

    While you pointedly list the “profane words that were tracked”, by PTC and that you were thinking of– “piss”, “crap”, “hell”,”suck” and “screw”, you didn’t list “at least a few of the words that might have been widely acceptable thirty years ago but are now considered the height of racism or sexism”
    I am curious as to what those are .In the interest of decorum, please use asterisks where necessary.
    I would also like to know what current television shows (or even ones in the last thirty years) you think “are sending a broader message embracing racism, sexism, homophobia or any other kind of intolerance”. Thank You Lamp for shining the light on this media issue, especially for our kids!

    • Hi Mike,

      Thanks for commenting–good questions. The very first word that comes to mind for me is nigger, which in my opinion are some of our most controversial words today. However, back in 1979, Elvis Costello used the word in his song Oliver’s Army. Nonetheless, it was a big hit for him, and the video for it even aired on MTV’s first day of broadcast. Today, there seem to more delicate rules about its use; back in 2004, UK broadcaster Ron Atkinson was forced to resign when, not realizing his microphone was still on, referred to a soccer player as “a fucking lazy thick nigger.” Similarly, Don Imus lost his radio show in 2007 when he referred to the Rutgers University women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos,” yet the rapper Snoop Dogg defended his own use of the same term in his music. The use of ‘gay’ has also been slowly changing. When I was a child, it was not generally considered a bad word. But, just a month ago, it was used in a trailer for an upcoming Ron Howard movie called The Dilemma, and the trailer was quickly denounced by Anderson Cooper as homophobic, and Universal pulled it from the trailer as a result. The point here is mostly that words evolve. They cannot be evaluated in terms of black and white, but that’s just what PTC did in their study. As for words which I think are generally more harmful than any of the ones tracked by PTC, I would include k*ke, d*ke, f*ggot, s*ut, w*ore, s*ic and w*tback. Again, though, that is my personal opinion. Obscenity is not a black and white issue, which is part of the reason the “fleeting expletive” clause was tossed out. I don’t think the PTC paints a full picture and the conclusions they draw from their study come off to me as rather alarmist and oversimplified.

      As for shows within the last thirty years which I think are sending or have sent a broader message of racism, sexism or intolerance, a few stand out for me. I don’t think Married…With Children painted a flattering picture of women in particular, though one could argue that the men don’t come off so well either. When it first aired, Will and Grace was a breakthrough because it featured a homosexual main character, but I think in hindsight it ultimately reinforced some harmful stereotypes. Whoopi Goldberg’s short-lived 2003 television show, Whoopi, traded fairly heavily on racial stereotypes for laughs.

      Those are just a few that come up for me. Are there other shows on TV which you find offensive, or words you consider to be harmful?

      –Emily.

  • Mike Hawk

    “The.. word.. n*gger..are some of our most controversial words today.” ? That’s only one word, (You did say you could think of “at least a few”) and it hardly qualifies as a word widely accepted 30yrs ago.(E.Costello’s song describing poor kids used by Britian for cannon fodder in N. Ireland as “white n*ggers” notwithstanding)
    “More delicate rules about it’s use” today? Rest assured, 30yrs ago someone who called anyone else “a f*ucking lazy thick n*gger” would have been fired just as fast.
    The word gay evolving into meaning something “bad”.? The Gay community doesnt think so. The word was adopted by homosexuals to describe themselves in preference to words like queer and homo that were in common usage at the time. The objection regarding the movie concerns the context of it’s use, not the word itself.

  • Mike Hawk

    I didn’t watch “Will and Grace” but as for “Married with Children” and “Whoopi” to say that they were sending a message of sexism and racism is to miss the joke entirely. They were ridiculing those stereotypes satirically, much like Stephan Colbert does with right-wingers. However, some folks actually take his character seriously too.

    Like Steve Martin said, sometimes “Comedy isn’t pretty”.