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.