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Censorship Essay, Research Paper

“Can They Say That On Television?” Yes, they can, and increasingly they do. The days of television being highly regulated, pure and decent may be over. It looks as if the ever-shifting rules governing what’s okay to say on television are made to be broken. The amount of violence, vulgarity, and sexual content that can be found at 8:00 P.M. or afterwards this year on television is unprecedented in the history of broadcasting. Many people wonder how television could have sunk to such a low level of glorifying violence, embracing vulgar language, and expanding sexual content in current programming.

Most viewers are troubled more by violence on TV than by profanity or sexual content. Vulgar language is being embraced faster than we think. There are dirty words, and plenty of them, on prime time TV. (Pennington, 1999) Prime time is also saturated with sex more explicitly than ever. Lusty scenes, partial nudity, free discussions of issues like the president’s oral sex, all show the media’s general relaxation of sexual guidelines. There are a few subtle influences contributing to the loosening of broadcast content on television, including: staff cutbacks, which reduce departments responsible for enforcing programming standards; network executives who compete to attract the most talented writers by allowing more creative leeway; writers who resist the shackles placed upon them while competing against pay-TV shows which operate under virtually no content-restrictions. However, the more pertinent reasons for television’s increasing boldness in language, violence, and sexuality involve society’s steadily increasing overall permissiveness in each of those areas.

How did television get so vulgar? The answer can be seen by looking at 3 main

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factors. First of all, the standards of what is considered “permissible” in the media are changing at the same rate as our overall cultural permissiveness rises. Writers want to depict current true-to-life pictures of what they believe are fairly common lifestyles. Secondly, since young viewers are being targeted, more is done to attract that audience. High levels of action, violence, foul language and sexuality are accepted and expected by teenagers. (Lowry, 1999). Third, writers are attempting to keep “shockproof” viewers entertained. Viewers who access internet pornography and R-rated movies on cable TV are more difficult to impact than in the past. (Levin, 1999). The standards regarding what is considered permissible on television corresponds closely with our overall increased cultural permissiveness. In order for advertisers to decide to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy time on show that has profanity, heavy sexual content, and shocking violence, they must be fairly certain that the content is not far from what society accepts(Lowry, 1999).

We are a long way from the early days when TV had strict network standards requiring married couples to sleep in twin beds. Other than occasional uproars about taboos, our society shows by TV ratings that have accepted all changes as realistic life-portrayal. Such shows as ‘Ellen’ portrays a lesbian family as a realistic and accepted lifestyle. In the early 80’s, limits were pushed with dramas such as Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere, which offered frank sex talk, brief nudity, and scatological humor. All along, the shows that push the violence, language and sex the furthest are the most widely viewed. (Levin, 1999). If Americans would wake up to what causes violence around the

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country, they would probably ban violent television shows and boycott sponsors of such programs. Although the Columbine High School tragedy in Colorado woke people up to the effects of violence on TV, current television programs that glorify violence still show high ratings. Professional wrestling is at the head of the line of increasing violence in programming. Using chairs, tables, garbage cans, barbed wire to fight is hardly the sport of wrestling. Rather than the old myth of good and evil, we now see just the evil. The “Buried Alive” match where one wrestler shovels dirt onto his opponent who was whacked in the head with a sledgehammer pretty much says it all. It’s not really wrestling; it’s a brawl (Graydon, 1999).

TV writers contend that rude language on TV is not any worse than one might hear in day-to-day life. Networks have pushed toward a new freedom to use formerly taboo words and phrases such as “ass”, “sucks”, “piss off” and “get laid” and “screw you”, along with the traditional “damn” and “hell”. A recent premiere on Fox TV opened with a character using the F-word six times in the first minute (bleeped, of course). Bleeps don’t even try hard to hide what’s really being said. Television is swearing as loud as it can to get people’s attention (Aucoin, 1999). TV writers argue that using adult language is merely being faithful to the way people talk.

There is a real world ever-escalating vulgarity factor, with the recent presidential sex scandal news reports leading the way. TV writers feel that viewers would not have even noticed if the Associated Press hadn’t run an article in advance pointing it out (Pennington, 1999). The “f” word, for the time being, remains off-limits, although lip

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readers can see it everywhere. Even of sporting events, when a golfer misses a putt, you know what he’s saying. Network TV recently purposefully ventured far into the dirty-word territory in an entertainment show. The response was, according to CBS, that the station received three phone calls, no faxes or email messages from viewers(McGuire, 1999). If public opinion is that indifferent, profanity on network TV could become as commonplace as it is in the movies. Rather than thinking TV has reached new lows in sexual content, some think that it is simply just catching up with a new cultural sexual permissiveness. Ratings show that viewers don’t seem to mind the growing permissiveness.

Although groups like the Parents Television Council speak out against the absence of a “family viewing hour” on network TV, networks have generally discovered that there is not much outcry from the majority of their viewers when sexual content increases. The ratings show that it’s what the public seems to want. (Lowry, 1999). The networks plead that their writers need to stay true to their artistic truthfulness and creative judgment. Shows with high levels of risque sexual dialogue draw large audiences. Writers also say that “Once you move away from violence, you always move toward sex” (Levin, 1999). Networks who drive toward the “edge” say they are justified in loosening the reigns when it comes to sexual content. Since three quarters of all homes now have more than one TV set (compared with just 35% in 1970), the networks argue that they should enjoy greater license to create shows aimed at pleasing adults. Again, since HBO and Fox are aimed at adult viewers, networks are desperate to win them back. Aside from

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the obviously loosening cultural permissiveness, two other reasons for TV’s sliding standards are: the quest for young viewers, and the effort to entertain an increasingly unshockable audience. Networks are desperate to reach the teenage and young adult audiences. In capturing the interest of young viewers, writers realize that young adults are less likely to object to relaxed limits than older viewers. Often teen dramas which don’t show actual heavy sex scenes have enough “talk” about sex that it becomes nearly as explicit as actual scenes would be. Professional wrestling’s use of violence and vulgarity in appealing to younger viewers is under pressure from advertisers and parent groups. (McKay, 1999). Criticism of the violence, the role models, the profanity and sexual content of wrestling centers around concern for what kids’ attitude toward their fellow man will be after growing up on this kind of vulgar entertainment. Networks are also struggling to entertain “shockproof” viewers who have choices such as Internet pornography, R-rated movies, Cable TV . It becomes difficult to excite viewers who have “seen it all”. Only nearly half of viewers report being shocked by anything they’ve seen on the networks. The groundbreaking shows which take language and sex the furthest have usually been the award-winning and Emmy nominee shows. (Levin, 1999) Writers competing for high ratings know they need to be aggressively shocking to get attention.

Network shows are obviously being aimed at winning back their audiences from more uncensored viewing. First, a close look at specific strategies used to attract young viewers shows that writers try to stick close to what kids are saying in homes all over America.

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The violence and vulgarity seen in professional wrestling has certainly escalated in the past 15 years. Some people believe it has gone over the edge lately. Some big name

advertisers are yanking ads because they don’t want to be associated with violent, foul-mouthed warriors and lewd story lines. The largest sponsor to do this was Coca-Cola Co., who yanked its ads in 1999. Their spokesman said “We felt the WWF had crossed the line in terms of content and language.” (McKay, 1999). Children are imitating programs, causing injuries and in at least one case, an accidental death. Scenes of wrestlers pouring gasoline on one another, the crowd shouting at villains, wrestlers using crowbars and chairs, and a porn-type invitation into a wrestler’s bedroom are pushing far beyond the limits. Kids in schools are using the same vocabulary, doing the same gestures as TV wrestlers. School administrators are agreeing that the problems are escalating. Kids are being discouraged from wearing wrestling T-shirts to school because of provocative and inappropriate messages. (Graydon, 1999).

There is a double standard between cable and the networks regarding content, one that allows cable to go further in terms of language, violence and nudity than over-the-air networks, which are governed by the Federal Communications Commission. As networks lose viewers, more people at home don’t make the distinction between cable and networks; they are all just channels coming through the box to them. The press showers praise on cable shows which really push the limits (like “Sopranos” and “Sex and the City” and “South Park”. But, if networks approach the same levels, critics burn them. (McGuire, 1999). Networks want to expand the boundaries of the programs they air

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because they are responding to what they perceive as new competitive realities. They want to win back the defecting viewers. They think the audiences are demanding them to

be relevant and to keep on exploring and experimenting. Sometimes, they push to outrageous limits, just in order to allow room for compromise. (Aucion, 1999). One of the things which threw viewers way beyond shock were the disturbing reports about oral sex in the Oval Office. The word “penis” lost its shock value after commentators said it dozens of times during Lewinsky reports. Eventually, they even stopped looking uncomfortable even when talking about acts performed. The president’s sex scandal suddenly led the world’s escalating vulgarity factor on television. (Pennington, 1999). Ironically, cleaning up the airways may be more of a campaign issue politically in the next election in 2004.

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Aucoin, Don (1999) “Almost Anything Goes – TV Turns Airwaves A deeper Shade of Blue” Boston Globe 23 Sept., 1A.

Graydon, Royce (1999) “Fit To Watch?” Star Tribune 24 Sept., 1E.

Levin, Gary (1999) “Primetime Lives on Edge With Nudity, Sex” The Detroit News 13 Oct., 5B.

Lowry, Brian (1999) “Television: Adjusting the Off-Color Contrast” Los Angeles Times 1999 Sept., 4.

McGuire, Mark (1999) “Chicago Hope Pushes Censorship Envelope With Profanity” The San Diego Union-Tribune 18 Oct., 2E.

McKay, Betsy (1999) “WWF Clamps Down on ‘Smackdown!’” New York Times 30 Nov., 14B.

Pennington, Gail (1999) “The Following Story Is Rated TV-MA (For Mature Audiences Only)” St. Louis Post 23 Oct., 3F Editorial (1999) .

“Letters Page” Denver Rocky Mountain News July 27, 1999, 33A.


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